Activists to Watch: Lucas Benitez

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Lucas Benitez speaks after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' 200-mile march for “rights, respect and fair food

Born in Mexico, Lucas Benitez moved to Immokalee, Fla., at 17 to work in the tomato fields, where he seethed over the mistreatment, poor pay and backbreaking working conditions. (Florida growers produce almost half of the nation’s $1.3 billion annual tomato crop.)

As founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Benitez has become a leader in the struggle to end exploitation in America’s agricultural fields. A few years after CIW began in 1992, Benitez, now 37, helped organize a strike of more than 3,000 Mexican, Central American and Haitian workers.

In 2001, CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food, forging an alliance between farmworkers and consumers, including student, religious, environmental and labor groups. CIW scored its first major victory in 2005, when Taco Bell agreed to improve wages and working conditions in response to a national consumer boycott. So far, 11 giant retail food chains and supermarkets — including Aramark, Bon Appetit, Burger King, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Compass Group, McDonald’s, Sodexo, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Yum Brands — have signed binding agreements with CIW that require growers to pass along an extra penny to workers per pound of product sold, raising the average annual wage from $10,000 to $17,000. (Wendy’s and Publix supermarkets are still holdouts and targets of CIW-led protests.)

CIW’s efforts have also forged a new approach to corporate social responsibility. Through its Fair Food campaign, CIW has persuaded major food corporations to agree to purchase tomatoes only from the 26 participating growers, who account for 90 percent of tomato industry revenues and have each signed a code of conduct agreeing to regular audits of their workplace practices, including review of pay, sexual harassment and other labor issues. CIW conducts worker education sessions on the farms and on company time to ensure that workers understand their new rights under the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

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Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). Follow him on Twitter: @PeterDreier.
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