For Pedro Silva, the only way to survive was to sign up as a debt slave. This 40 year-old linchpin of an extended family of elders, in-laws, a wife and children was up against it. Bad harvests in Indiana and Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina had wiped out the family’s savings, and when they got home to South Florida, near Belleglade, they discovered a freeze had knocked out the orange crop.
They would have had to borrow money to go somewhere else. Instead, they borrowed money to stay, knowing they’d all, Grandpa and the older kids and of course, the adults have to work extra hard just to clear their debt by the time it was to try the Midwest vegetable farms next year.
This was 1990. I was there making a PBS Frontline documentary about migrant farm workers, 30 years after Edward R. Murrow’s classic Harvest of Shame. In that time, 2 things had changed: 1) African-Americans had been replaced in the groves and fields by Haitians, Mexicans and Salvadorans, who were, in turn, being undercut on wages and replaced by Guatemalans and Hondurans; and 2) by every measure, pay and living conditions for the farm workers were worse.
If I had gone a bit to the south and west of Belleglade to Immokalee, to the fields of tomatoes and watermelons, farmworkers’ lives would have looked every bit as grim as around Belleglade. Un-repaired trailers, nasty water, worse sanitation…listless kids, sick or just malnourished. But 5 years later, things started to change, and today farm-work is still hard and still poorly paid, but the everyday abuses of the turn of the 21st century, routine exposures to toxic pesticides, routine exposure, with no shade or water, to the Florida sun, beatings, sexual assault, rampant wage theft, modern-day slavery are gone. Workers’ pay is up, but respect and self-respect are up even higher.
One key to all of this is that these changes were a 25 year inside job, done from the bottom up, driven by a pair of activist organizers, and a handful of workers who knew how to bring other workers together and how to argue for the things those workers wanted.
As this homegrown reform movement grew, it attracted useful outsiders, sympathetic law students, workplace monitors, a retired NY State judge to make sure agreed-upon standards on working conditions and pay were met, but the original leadership team drove the Immokalee Coalition of Workers all the way across the goal line.
The other key is that the goal line, from the start, was reform on an industrial-scale, not just workers doing better with growers, the way a traditional labor union might have framed things. The goal was to enlist workers, farm managers, growers, wholesalers and retailers in one big collaboration to make sure that picking fruits and vegetables for Whole Foods, Wal-Mart or Trader Joe, Taco Bell or McDonalds gives workers a fair chance at a decent life.
Susan L. Marquis is dean of the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School and is RAND’s vice president for Innovation. Prior to joining RAND, she held senior and executive positions in both the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Navy.
Marquis teaches and researches on organizational culture in government institutions and innovative solutions to persistent and complex public policy problems. She is the author of Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces (1997). She currently serves as chair of the Woodrow Wilson School Advisory Council, Princeton University; is a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge; and is a non-resident senior fellow at the Fox Leadership Institution, University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy.