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Politics of the Plate: Tomato Summit

03.19.09
Florida Governor Charlie Crist has finally agreed to meet with representatives from a farmworkers’ organization to discuss the dismal labor conditions in the state’s tomato fields.
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It took repeated requests to three governors’ administrations dating back to Lawton Chiles in the 1990s and Jeb Bush in the first half of this decade, plus thousands of letters from constituents and religious leaders and a day-long demonstration on the statehouse steps, but Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced last week that he was willing to do something no other leader of that state has done: He will meet with representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a 4,000-member organization trying to improve the dismal working conditions in the state’s tomato fields.

It will be interesting to hear what Crist has to say about the two main issues on the coalition’s agenda. The CIW is asking first that he condemn outright and take steps to put a stop to the enslavement of tomato pickers; and second, that he encourage the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, to which 90 percent of the state’s packers belong, to pay workers one penny more per pound (passing along the increase that several fast-food companies have promised workers for the tomatoes they harvest. With no conduit to the laborers, that money now goes into an escrow account.

The meeting, which is scheduled for later this month, is a big step, but as the coalition’s Lionel Perez told Amy Bennett Williams, who has pursued the story of the tomato pickers’ plight for the Ft. Myers News Press: “What’s most important is what happens after the meeting.”

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