IMMOKALEE, Fla. (AP) — Growers of the bulk of all U.S. winter tomatoes struck a major deal Tuesday with a Florida farmworkers' group to boost their wages and working conditions, clearing the way for food giants such as McDonald's, Burger King and upscale grocer Whole Foods to pass along more money to poor field pickers for their harvests.
The landmark deal caps more than a decade of attempts by struggling field workers and their advocacy group, the Coalition of Immokalee (ihm-MAH'koh-lee) Workers, to reach a deal with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a lobby for an industry that oversees 90 percent of the domestic winter tomato supply.
In separate deals over the past five years, nine major national food groups including Yum Brands Inc. — owner of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell — have agreed to pay a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they picked. The idea is that the growers would then pass the added money along to the field workers.
While those deals reaped national headlines, for the most part they were never implemented because the major growers group had refused to participate — until now.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the exchange, said the decision to come to the table was based in part on growers' desire to protect the welfare of workers and in part on survival. He hopes a growing American appetite for locally grown produce — picked by workers earning fair wages — will give Florida tomatoes the edge in a highly competitive global market.
"We are in tight competition with Mexican growers," Brown explained. "We provide the majority of the domestically grown fresh tomatoes for about seven months of the year. And if this is not a sustainable industry, then the U.S. will not produce tomatoes ... then there's no wages for anybody."
The coalition said food suppliers have agreed to absorb the cost and it doesn't expect consumers to see any related increase in prices.
Lucas Benitez, who co-founded the workers group in 1996, signed the agreement with Brown at a joint news conference Tuesday outside the coalition's offices in Immokalee. He noted that the timing of the deal before Thanksgiving coincides with the 50th anniversary of famous broadcaster Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame," documentary, which then detailed abysmal working conditions for Florida farm workers.
The two sides said the deal would begin with the winter season.
"Today hope, not shame, is on the horizon," Benitez said, predicting it could spur more food companies to join in pledges to pay the pickers more. Currently field laborers earn roughly between 45 and 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they fill.
"The raise will not change lives overnight, but it will grow," Benitez added.
Among steps, it calls for greater worker-to-worker education about farm laborers' rights and how to speak up about violations — including sexual harassment of women workers, which has long been reported as prevalent in the fields. It also provides for a third party to help resolve workplace disputes.
The coalition began fighting to increase wages for tomato pickers back in the 1990s, attempting strikes with little success early on. Then the group turned to the major food chains that bought the tomatoes, leading to a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell that culminated in a 2005 agreement.
More deals soon followed, but each time the growers balked. The growers threatened to fine any members who worked with the coalition and instead created their own safety and worker protection plan. The coalition likened that plan to the fox protecting the hen house.
Things finally began to change in recent months, with two major tomato growers breaking ranks to work with the coalition, setting the stage for Tuesday's announcement.
Benitez said the coalition has already trained more than 1,000 tomato pickers in the fields, teaching them that they may no longer be fired for lodging complaints about working conditions and helping ensure basic health and safety practices, including shaded structures for pickers exposed to the hot sun.
Coalition organizer Greg Asbed cautioned the agreement is just a first step in new dialogue with the growers.
"This isn't a play that has finished," he said. "We are just entering the next scene."