On her book I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won

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In a nutshell

I Am Not A Tractor! is about the courage, vision, and creativity of the farmworkers and community leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), who have transformed what had been the worst agricultural situation in the United States to one of the best. Florida’s tomato fields have long been known for abuses that included toxic pesticide exposure, beatings, sexual assault, rampant wage theft, and even, astonishingly, modern-day slavery. In the past seven years, violence has largely disappeared, working conditions are now safe, worker pay has increased by as much as 60%, and there has been but one (quickly identified and prosecuted) reported case of slavery. And all of this has happened without new legislation, regulation, or government participation. Tractor! answers the question, Why has this effort succeeded when so many other “social responsibility” and labor reform efforts have failed?

Who are the people who imagined and led this effort? A teenage immigrant from Mexico whose standoff with a violent crew box was a first step to co-founding the CIW; a man who was a neuroscience major at Brown who takes great pride in the watermelon crew he’s on; a leading farmer/grower who was once homeless, pushing a shopping cart on the streets of LA; a woman who began working just with the farmworker community in Immokalee and now, as part of that same work, trains law enforcement, diplomatic, and criminal justice officials in identifying and eliminating modern-day slavery; and a retired New York State judge who volunteered to stuff envelopes and ended up building a ground-breaking institution. These are the people who have built the Coalition and the Fair Food Program that have changed the lives of more than 30,000 field workers and are offering a solution to a problem with long roots in our nation’s slave history and continuing conflict over immigration.

The reason I wrote I Am Not A Tractor! is because I wanted to get at the big questions of not only what the Coalition has accomplished but how they did it, what they’ve achieved, why the Fair Food Program has worked, and what this tells us about effective social change.

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The wide angle

Although this effort began in Florida’s tomato fields, the Coalition and the Fair Food Program are providing a model for worker-driven social responsibility that could transform American agriculture, with potential applications to factory labor and even the gig economy. Wherever there are buyers, particularly global corporations, with strong brands, there is the high probability that the CIW’s model could be replicated. Ultimately, the Fair Food Program model is a partnership between workers, producers, and corporate buyers, built on the foundation of consumer support, worker-driven standards, and market sanctions.

The Fair Food Program is uniquely comprehensive in the world of social responsibility. It begins with standards—the Code of Conduct—that come from the workers’ expertise and then the legally-binding agreements that prohibit corporate buyers from purchasing from growers suspended from, or outside of, the Fair Food Program. In their essence, the standards define workers with basic human rights of being paid for their work and a safe workplace. The buyer agreements provide real and immediate sanctions for growers who violate the Code of Conduct. The third element of the program is a mandatory, on-the-clock worker-to-worker education program so that every worker knows his or her rights (freedom from violence, shade and water, paid for every hour of work, etc.).

The next element is two levels of monitoring: most importantly by the workers who all have access to a 24/7 complaint hotline as well as third-party monitoring by the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) auditors. When potential violations are identified, the FFSC immediately investigates, with most complaints resolved in just a few days and more complicated issues taking about two weeks. Enforcement and sanctions are immediate and direct, ranging from a public apology by the grower and retraining for a crew leader or supervisor who violated the standards, to immediate firing of a crew leader or supervisor who committed sexual assault or gun violence, to suspension from the Fair Food Program for a grower who does not quickly come into compliance. The grower feels the immediate effect of having lost a substantial market for their produce.

I shouldn’t miss highlighting that it is the corporate buyers who are paying the “penny-per-pound” premium for Fair Food Program tomatoes. The end result is that workers are safe, their pay has increased by 60-70%, and they now have a “place at the table” when growers make decisions that affect the workers’ health and safety.

One last point on the effect of the Fair Food Program or, really, a somewhat unexpected additional effect: not only do the workers benefit but growers and buyers do as well. The growers now have a far more stable and accountable workforce, and they are also gaining the expertise of the workers in what it takes to grow and harvest tomatoes and, increasingly, peppers and strawberries. The workers have identified safety hazards and operational efficiencies that have resulted in better operations on participating farms. The corporate buyers benefit from the brand protection that comes from a distinctively clean and safe supply chain. And they get this protection for minimal costs and a lot of good public relations.

My professional path leading to this book might look improbable at first. I spent much of my career in the Pentagon as an operations research analyst and then in leadership roles in analytic and resource organizations. That culture is nothing if not pragmatic. It was our job to determine, and argue for, what investments make sense given threats, capabilities, and dollar constraints. My first book was about what seemed like an anomalous success story in rebuilding U.S. special operations forces (SOF) in the wake of the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1979. The fight to rebuild SOF pressed forward imaginatively and was implemented tenaciously, largely, I argue, as a result of the organizational culture of the special operators.

As Tractor! tells it, I pretty much stumbled upon the Immokalee story, and the remarkable success of the efforts of these disparate cultures coming together to solve a hitherto intractable problem was compelling. It was, and is, another story of culture, imagination, and tenacity converging to get something good, and potentially game-changing, accomplished, in an arena where failure, or at most, cosmetic change was the norm. And story-wise, in both cases, the more I learned, the better it got.

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A close-up

Jump into Chapter 4: Has anyone talked with these guys? It gives a sense of what a great, and encouraging, story this is. The Prologue gives a short but comprehensive overview of what most readers, to include myself when I first came to learn of the CIW, likely aren’t aware of: the dark, brutal, and, shockingly, continuing story of agricultural labor in the United States. If policy is your thing (and, I must admit that it is mine), the last two chapters focus on why the Fair Food Program has worked, insights on what it takes to make sustainable social change, and why the Fair Food Program is a transformational model for the future.

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The story is a good news story – all too rare these days. The people are extraordinary. But this story is bigger than that. The model of worker-driven social responsibility demonstrated with the Fair Food Program, has tremendous promise well beyond Florida’s farm fields, or even American agriculture. You could almost view the Fair Food Program as a pilot for the larger program that offers an explicit path to resolve the persistent and complex problems of low-wage labor in factories or even within the gig economy. And, the non-governmental, worker-driven, market-enforced aspects of this solution is consistent with the dramatic changes we’ve seen in policy making and public policy. I Am Not A Tractor! is a story that needed to be told and it is a set of ideas and a model that gives us not only hope, but a way forward.

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Susan L. Marquis I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won Cornell University Press 296 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 1501713088

Susan L. Marquis is dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School and is RAND Corporation’s vice president for Innovation. She teaches and researches on organizational culture and innovative solutions to persistent and complex policy problems, on topics ranging from food policy to national security. Prior to joining RAND, Marquis held leadership positions in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Program Analysis and Evaluation Directorate. Her first book was Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces (1997).

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