Susan L. Marquis


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

Cover Interview of December 03, 2017

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.