Trader Joe'sWe’ll try not to read too much into this mural: The Trader Joe’s in Boston. Photo courtesy of atomicity via Flickr

Before you head over to Trader Joe’s to stock up on cheap snacks for your Labor Day weekend festivities, stop and consider shopping somewhere else. Labor Day was enacted not as a general holiday to rest in honor of laborers, but in response to the tragic deaths of striking workers. And good old cheap Joe — which just agreed to stop selling eggs from Jack DeCoster’s vile operations — is one of the remaining holdouts in this decade’s most high-profile, life-or-death farmworkers’ rights campaign.  

Two weeks ago, my coworker Karen and I left the office a little early and walked across Manhattan to the Trader Joe’s store in Chelsea, where a small group had gathered making signs and chatting. Among them were members of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots group working to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers. Over the course of about 45 minutes, dozens more people filled the sidewalk in front of the store, including labor activists from the Jewish Labor Committee, Just Harvest USA and the Farmworker Solidarity Alliance, as well as local youths and a handful of musicians from the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.

Trader Joe’s, along with Publix, Kroger, and the Dutch-held Ahold grocery chain (which includes Giant, Stop & Shop, Martin’s, and Peapod), are the most recent targets of CIW’s Fair Food Campaign. Over the last nine years the Coalition, together with partner organizations like the Student/Farmworker Alliance, has managed, through well-organized consumer campaigns and sometimes boycotts, to convince some of the food industry’s largest corporations (including Taco Bell/Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Subway, Whole Foods, and Compass — see Grist’s Tom Philpott’s coverage) to agree to the tenets of Fair Food: an extra penny a pound for tomatoes (nearly doubling the wages for pickers, who’ve not seen a raise since the mid-1970s), a labor Code of Conduct, greater transparency in the supply chain, and incentives for growers that respect human rights.

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Farm laborers were specifically left out of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935, and have still never been awarded rights that were extended to other kinds of workers 75 years ago, including the right to bargain collectively.

The major fast-food wins the Coalition has enjoyed have not come without a fight — in 2007, Burger King hired private investigators to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance and Vice President Stephen Grover was caught using his daughter’s online alias to smear the group virtually. Chipotle, a chain built on promises of “food with integrity,” is the highest-profile holdout, and has spent the last few years dodging the Coalition. But they’ve made much greater strides with restaurants than with the grocery chains — only Whole Foods, which like Chipotle built its reputation on ethically-sound food, has managed to sidestep the bad publicity that heel-dragging retailers have experienced.

Like Whole Foods and Chipotle, Trader Joe’s attracts a decidedly progressive league of shoppers, but has managed, at least until recently, to avoid much scrutiny, in part perhaps through what CNN Money recently dubbed its “obsessively secretive” behavior. The chain has not escaped controversy entirely — two years ago, when 17-year-old Maria Vasquez suffered fatal heat stroke in a California vineyard that grew grapes for Charles Shaw wine, also known as Two Buck Chuck, which is sold by the chain, labor activists were quick to pressure Trader Joe’s to push its suppliers for stricter adherence to labor regulations.

But if Joe is feeling the heat, he’s not showing it. My email to the company was left unanswered, and Chelsea Now reporters Bonnie Rosenstock and Scott Stiffler received an evasive response from TJ’s publicist, Alison Mochizuki:

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At Trader Joe’s, we work with reputable suppliers that have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting if not exceeding government standards throughout all aspects of their businesses.

A few weeks before the Trader Joe’s rally, Karen and I met before work (to shoot the video below) at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, where the CIW’s mobile Modern-Day Slavery Museum had set up shop for the day to educate passers-by about six of the seven cases of slavery prosecuted on behalf of farmworkers in recent years.

The museum, housed in a cargo truck similar to the one that held enslaved workers in one of the cases, puts these modern abuses into historical perspective, documenting Florida’s checkered past from the days of Spanish chattel slavery, through its use as a hub for importing African slaves and the creation of systems of state-sanctioned slavery, like the convict-lease program of the late 1800s, through which the state would actually rent out African-American men, often convicted on questionable charges, to farm owners. It points out the fact that farm laborers were specifically left out of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935, and have still never been awarded rights that were extended to other kinds of workers 75 years ago, including the right to bargain collectively. Since then, the most common form of labor abuses entail “debt peonage,” often using a “company store” set up, sometimes withholding wages so that workers lack cash to buy food and other goods anywhere but from the employer, who sells them to employees at radically inflated prices.

But the six cases of modern slavery on display are a radical departure even from these abuses and hearken back to the days when slavery was a way of life in the American South. Prosecuted and won between 1997 and 2008, the cases involved forced, underpaid and even unpaid labor, physical violence and in some cases, kidnapping and imprisonment. The Coalition was instrumental in the uncovering and investigation of each of these six cases, and it was out of this work that the Fair Food Campaign was born.

Often, farmworkers are especially vulnerable because they are undocumented and in fear of being deported — and the blame for engaging in illegal work always falls on them, rather than on the growers, distributors, restaurateurs, and retailers who pr
ofit from their cheap labor (and whose punishment, if it comes, tends toward the wrist-slapping variety).

Florida’s most recent case of slavery, indictments for which came down in July, is an excellent example: Haitian nationals were allegedly lured to Florida with promises of decent jobs, had their passports taken from them upon arrival and were basically imprisoned, barely fed, and in one case, raped by her captor. And just yesterday, in what the FBI is calling the largest case of human trafficking ever brought to court in the U.S., six were charged — including four from labor contractor Global Horizons — allegedly involved a similar bait-and-switch, as well as passport withholding.

Even for those among us who are shocked and appalled by these sorts of abuses, it is easy to turn a blind eye and believe company spokespeople who seek to assure us that they would never do business with growers who would abuse the rights of their workers. But without a much greater level of transparency in our food system, and without giving workers the right to bargain collectively, how are retailers or their patrons ever to know where corners may be getting cut to provide us with the low prices we crave? Most Americans, particularly those with no ties to agriculture, have no clue that such abuses still happen, let alone that they may be complicit in such exploitation through their purchases, which is why the Modern-Day Slavery Museum is such a powerful vehicle.

If you eat a tomato this weekend — or even if you hate tomatoes — try to honor the holiday by thinking about who picked it. If, like those of us in New York, you’ve been suffering an uncommonly hot summer, consider what it might be like to pick two tons of tomatoes a day under the Florida sun, all to earn $50 or $60. Ask yourself if you’d want to earn a more livable wage, to be assured things like access to water and shade and protection from pesticide spray, and to have a voice in the circumstances under which you went to work. I would.

Occasionally, Grist hopes you’ll be inspired to do more than read (and share) our material, via a Get Off Your Ass opportunity. Here’s one: Tell these foot-dragging retailers — in person, or via email, that you want them to do right by farmworkers and not hide behind bland PR assurances. Trader Joe’s takes comments here, Chipotle here, and Ahold here.

A version of this post was first published at Ecocentric.