The first time I ever heard of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was from a friend who had gone to Immokalee, the region in South Florida where most of the tomatoes of the eastern seaboard are grown, on a volunteer trip. He came back depressed. People were living in circumstances that were not unlike (and in several cases fit the technical definition of) slavery, and they had for generations. People struggled. Nothing changed.

The next time I heard about the CIW, it was because they had changed something, and changed it big. After years of collaborating with federal slavery investigations and pressuring tomato growers for better wages and living conditions, the CIW had decided that the entire system needed to be reformed. Tomato growers didn’t get paid enough to pay fair wages. The federal, state, and local governments, on their own, were not capable of policing the kind of labor violations that were going on.

And so they developed a new plan: convince the biggest tomato buyers to pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes, most of which would be funneled back into worker’s wages; and create an independent certification organization — The Fair Food Standards Council — that would handle labor violations.

They set their sights on their first target — Taco Bell — and won. With pressure, other companies began to sign the agreements too. Back in Immokalee, they rallied themselves by staging boxing matches where a farmworker punched out competitors wearing the logos of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods. Last year, the United Nations brought a delegation from the CIW to Geneva to speak about its successes to the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. And earlier this month, Walmart, the CIW’s biggest catch yet, sat down and signed the agreement too, without the CIW’s even needing to mount a public campaign pressuring it to do so.

How did such an improbable thing come to pass? And what can we, like the U.N., learn from their example?

The CIW was founded by a group of farmworkers and organizers in Immokalee, Fla. in 1993. Among them was Greg Asbed, a Brown grad who had gone to work at Florida Rural Legal Services. Recently, I talked with Asbed to try to answer these questions.

Q. You have an independent certifying body. Why, do you have that, and not a union? Other than the fact that unions aren’t doing too well?

A. We don’t have the right to unionize. California has a state labor relations act for agricultural workers but agricultural workers everywhere else are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and you just can’t organize without fear of losing your job. That’s just been the reality forever. So as a farmworker, you’ve always had to find some other way to do things.

But we’ve always been different. The people who formed the organization didn’t grow up in union families. They came from peasant movements in Haiti and Guatemala. They organized in the way that they knew how.

Q. Was this style of organizing new to you?

A. No. I’d been in Haiti, and I’d worked with a peasant organization there too.

If you know the history, back in the early ’90s the president who had been a part of the democratization over there — Aristide — had been overthrown, and so there was a second wave of Haitian immigrants to the United States at that point. Most of them were younger political activists who had to seek political asylum in the United States, because once Aristide was overthrown and replaced with a military government, they became persona non grata over there.

And so the same time that I wound up going to Immokalee, there was a whole other group coming to Immokalee as well that came from these other movements, from Haiti but also from South Mexico in particular. People with incredible skills for organizing. In poor countries, there can be incredible technology just on how to survive.

We used a tool of organizing called “popular education.” Leadership has to be widely distributed — no one charismatic leader. It has to be based on a population critically analyzing its own situation. People asked: “Why are farmworkers poor? Why are we working so hard and being treated so horribly? Why do we not have any power to change?”

In the south it’s always been large-scale production, and most disenfranchised vulnerable people have done the labor. The faces changed over the years — the people who could get other jobs got out. Farm work has always been the last job on the totem pole. There’s no one who shows up at their job and says “Gee, I can’t wait to get this sack and start picking oranges.”

It’s always been the very worst sort of job in the labor market. So it’s a job that’s always been held by the most vulnerable workers. Right now that’s immigrants.

What’s hopeful is that now that wages are starting to stabilize and improve — which they are, in tomatoes — people aren’t running away from the fields like their hair is on fire, like they did in the past.

They’re starting to settle down and stay in these jobs, and that’s a good thing. It’s good for the communities they live in, because they become more stable and aren’t a community that’s just constantly turning over. Like in Imokalee.

Imokalee used to look like one of those labor reserves in South Africa — just a bunch of young men. Now you see a lot more women and families and children than there used to be. And the better the jobs are, the more stable the community will be, and a lot of the problems that come from being a young single male community of migrant workers go away, because you become a community of stable families, which is a benefit to everybody.

In 2001 we declared to the world that Taco Bell makes farmworkers poor. It made sense to us. It didn’t make sense to everybody. But there is this story behind farmworker poverty and the food that we eat, which is that the companies that buy the food are these huge consolidated multibillion dollar corporations these days. And their volume purchasing has led to conditions of poverty and exploitation at the base of their supply chain. That’s how Taco Bell makes farmworkers poor. And if we want to change that poverty, we need to change that dynamic.

We still have a meeting every Wednesday where we provoke discussion on the problems that are affecting the community. We’ve done that for 20 years. That’s why the Immokalee workers have sparked this change, because they’ve spent years analyzing these questions.

Q. I’m still wondering though — why create this separate organization to monitor all the abuses that you’d been dealing with already?

A. We could oversee ourselves, but that didn’t make much sense.

Q. It seems to me a lot of organizations would have the hubris to say “Well, of course we can do this ourselves.”

A. We’re not doing this to be an organization. We’re doing this to change the thing that we’ve been trying to change for 20 years. And so everything we do is to insure that happens.

We could have expanded from the beginning. We could have claimed that we were going to be doing things all over the place. But we didn’t because it’s always been a community-driven project in Immokalee, which is in Florida in the heart of tomato country, which has had problems for generations.

Now the great — not necessarily unforeseen, but nothing we rushed forward to achieve — circumstance is that we created a model that can be used elsewhere. That will drive expansion over time. But that expansion will always be in a way that doesn’t overreach.

Q. So if someone calls you and says “I want your help setting up something similar with berry pickers in Michigan”?

A. We’d say, “That’s interesting. You want to see how the model works?” The imperative is not to grow. The imperative is to work.

With Walmart — we’ve been looking at ourselves and wondering what made that possible. I think it’s really that we’ve been able to implement the program and that the program has had measurable results. The program essentially won this agreement.

It’s exciting, because the companies involved are starting to realize that’s actually a good thing, because they see their workers being more productive. Workers are educated about their rights. Workers have a complaint system that works. The supply chain is actually monitored. And they see that the headlines that used to happen in the past aren’t happening anymore, because of the Council, and that’s good for the industry and that’s good for the buyer. It works. So instead of trying to deal with those problems with public relations — you know, there’s a whole industry built around public relations crisis. This is an approach that eliminates the source of public relations crisis.

This is a sea change in the history of this movement. There was one other company that came on without protest, and that was Bon Appetit — they were looking forward and found us there. But this is the first agreement like this that has been achieved by the program itself.

Q. And how did this thing happen with the UN?

A. The UN were realizing that human rights, which they had been charged with overseeing and improving, weren’t improving. States were no longer a very effective mechanism for improving them, and corporations, with these global supply chains, were as powerful as some states. And they realize that human rights violations were tied to the conditions of these supply chains.

So they set out to design and try to define certain principles for the effective protection of human rights in the corporate supply chain, as a parallel process with the state protection of human rights. They call them the Ruggie Principles, for the Harvard professor who led the process of trying to determine them.

Then they came to the U.S. to see what applications of the Ruggie Principles there might be, and what they found was the Fair Food Council.

Q. So you just got a call that said “Hey! This is the UN! We’d like to visit!”

A. Well, we work with an attorney who mentioned us to them. It turned out they were going to do a delegation to the United States from the Business and Human Rights Working Group.

And so they came down and spent two or three days in Immokalee, talking to workers and talking to growers, and talking to the Fair Foods Standards Council. And then we went to Geneva in December to share how we did this with representatives from 85 countries.

Q. And now that you’re monitoring growers who have farms out of state, do you have further plans to expand?

A. Yes. That’s part of the deal with Walmart, to expand to their suppliers out of state. Tomatoes to begin, but we’re also going to be working on crops outside of tomatoes. But it’s always going to be a smart extension. We’re trying not to overreach or overpromise. Because we’re a worker-led process, for us it’s extremely important that it actually works.

Q. You worked with Verité, an international NGO, when you set up the Council. Any reason you chose them?

A. In the world of auditing, they’re considered top shelf. Although auditing is only part of what we do — the most important thing we do is training and complaints. There are things in the code of conduct that only a worker would know as a problem that would need to be fixed. Like the overfilling of buckets, which is no longer allowed.

Auditing is only a snapshot. We have a 24-hour, 1-800 hotline. When the entire workforce is trained and able to report, that’s a 24-hour surveillance system. I mean — I make it sound so draconian. But it really works much better in being able to accurately capture what’s going on.

Q. When I’ve done stories on independent certifying bodies, they’re usually really depressing stories about corruption. Did tomato growers or buyers ever try to come up with their own fake certifying body?

A. They did. It was called SAFE: Socially Accountable Farm Employers. McDonald’s tried to set up their own thing. And in the middle of their big press conference announcing it together with Burger King in Immokalee, when they declared that farms that sold to Burger King were free of slavery, that same day some workers got their way out of a UHaul trailer that they were chained inside and escaped in what would be one of the last slavery cases in the area.

Q. How did the internet fit in to the Immokalee story?

A. Community organizing has always been face to face. You’ve got to be great at face-to-face organizing or you won’t do well. But the internet did that on a national scale.

We were using the internet well before most people were. We were posting videos online way before YouTube existed. It was really clunky and slow, but it was possible.

This would not have been possible without the ability to communicate with tens and thousands of people at once. Our website gets millions of hits a month. When you think back to the pre-internet age — where were people to going to learn about things happening in the supply chain of what they buy? Where would they be able to learn about human rights abuses that concern them?

It was not readily available. You really had to dig. And so the vast majority of people had very little knowledge and therefore very little interest. Now anyone who’s even remotely interested can find information about just about any product, pretty quickly. So there’s that — that immediate and democratic flow of information. If workers want to organize for better working condition and want to find allies in the consumers who use their products, that would be impossible without the internet.

The world is a different place. There is definitely a growing separation of companies into two camps — ones that wish it could be 1985 again, or 1965, where you could turn back the clock and people would go into the store with no idea of — and no desire to know — the story behind the food. Like my mom, when she would take me to the supermarket. A very thoughtful person. But she didn’t know it, and she didn’t have any access to it if she did want to know it.

And then there are companies that are looking forward to and embracing this century, which is the century of information. And they realize that the people, the market, cares about the story of their food and the desire to have access to the information of that story is growing, and it’s only going to get bigger. And the companies that are going to be able to get out ahead of that are the ones that are going to do best, in the years ahead.

There are not many ways yet to monitor that supply chain effectively, but this model is one.

Correction: This story originally incorrectly reported that a portion of the 1.5 cent increase in per-pound tomato prices would go to defray the costs of the Fair Food Standards Council, the independent certification organization. It also incorrectly listed three co-founders of the CIW, including Greg Asbed, as its sole founders. Grist regrets the errors.