On December 10, 1948, the United Nations unanimously approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Shabbatot before and after December 10 each year are dedicated to remembering the legacy of the Declaration and striving to advance the cause of Human Rights in the U.S. and around the world. This year's Human Rights Shabbat sermon focuses on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their groundbreaking Fair Food Program.
Those Whose Cause is Just:
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Their Pursuit of Human Rights
Background (shared earlier in the service):
Sixty-six years and two days ago, the newly-formed United Nations unanimously ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The global community came together to affirm with a loud voice: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
If this sounds really Jewish to you, don’t be surprised. While Eleanor Roosevelt was the primary advocate for the drafting of the Declaration, it had many, many Jewish supporters. The wounds of the Holocaust were still fresh, and Jewish leaders fought vigorously to establish legal and ethical codes that would deter future genocides. Their efforts paid off, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has served as a beacon of justice for over six decades.
Sadly, though, many of the human rights championed by the UN’s declaration remain merely aspirational. That’s why our community joins almost two hundred other congregations around the world in commemorating Human Rights Shabbat, supported by the organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We speak as a united Jewish community, committed to changing the world into a place where every person’s human rights are honored.
“All men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson, 1776.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Reverend Theodore Parker, 1810.
“Everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
In every age, we affirm the values of freedom, and every age faces its obstacles to justice. We stand as inheritors of the struggles and triumphs of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and our efforts continue to bring us closer, day by day, to a world of שָׁלוֹם אֵין קֵץ, “Peace without end” (Isaiah 9:6), in which “violence has vanished and extortion is at an end” (Isaiah 16:4).
In October of this year, I saw firsthand one of today’s front lines in the struggle for justice. As part of a rabbinic delegation sponsored by T’ruah, I traveled to Immokalee, Florida to learn about the Coalition of Immokalee workers, to meet their activists, and to form personal and institutional relationships that I am eager to bring into our community.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or CIW, is a worker-based human rights organization that has been active for more than 20 years in improving the lives and communities of farm workers in Florida. Last year, the Roosevelt Institute, which carries on the progressive legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, awarded the CIW one of its prestigious Four Freedoms Awards in honor of its victories in bringing to life the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Receiving that award on behalf of the CIW was Gerardo Reyes, someone I met on my trip to Florida. His remarks underscored the historic significance of the CIW’s ongoing work:
There are many that have fought before us for the construction of a better world. Today, we’re just following their steps. We remember their struggles because, somewhere, we’ve heard that all men are created equal.
Somewhere, we’ve read that everyone has a right to fair wages and working conditions to ensure a dignified existence.
Somewhere, we’ve read that everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe.
Somewhere, we’ve heard that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
These are ideals for the life we could only dream about. Today, for the first time in the history of the South, this dream is coming true for farm workers in Florida’s agriculture. For the first time, we have a place at the table. In our struggle for better wages and working conditions, we’re confident that this recognition will help us arrive to the day in which our dreams will be made fully real and will inspire others to continue the journey in the construction of a food system that recognizes and respects human rights.
Gerardo and his colleagues have achieved dazzling success in advancing the cause of human rights, and they have invited each of us to join them.
First, some background information.
Garden tomatoes must be picked by hand – machines are only used to pick tomatoes that will be processed into ketchup, tomato sauce, and so on. So every tomato you buy in a grocery store, every tomato you eat on your burger, and every tomato you find in your salad was picked by hand by a farm worker. And if it’s November through May, that farm worker probably lives in Immokalee, FL.
Immokalee is a small town in southwestern Florida that serves as the epicenter of the farm worker population for the entire region. People who live in Immokalee may work in farms around the corner or a two-hour drive away, forcing them to wake up before dawn in order to make it to the fields by the time the work day begins. From November to May, they pick tomatoes off the vine, providing 44% of all fresh tomatoes grown in the United States. In 2012, Florida farm workers hand-picked 478,500 tons of fresh market tomatoes. Tomatoes are the country’s fourth most popular vegetable, making the farm workers of Immokalee a central and indispensable part of our nation’s eating habits.
Farm workers like those in Immokalee harvest tomatoes for growers such as Pacific Tomato Growers or Big Red Tomato Packers. Growers, in turn, sell tomatoes to grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and food service companies.
Growers pay their field workers by the bucket. Workers set out with a tub that can hold 32 pounds of tomatoes and return to the truck when it’s full. At the end of the day, they receive a flat rate for each bucket they’ve picked. In 1980, growers paid their field workers 40 cents per bucket. The same wage, adjusted for inflation, would be worth $1.15 today. But in 2010, workers were making only 50 cents per bucket. In effect, wages had dropped by more than 50% in thirty years. And in 2010, that wage was well below the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four.
Also in 2010, farm workers were subject to numerous violations of their human rights. While their wages were always low, sometimes, they were withheld altogether. Sexual harassment was nearly impossible to prevent, and threats of violence and acts of violence were regularly used as “motivation.” Breaks were rare, shade even rarer. At its worst, the Florida tomato industry was known as “ground zero” for modern-day slavery. Bosses trying to squeeze out every possible hour of productive labor made the already strenuous job of hand-picking tomatoes unbearable.
Today, conditions are much, much better. This is due almost entirely to the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their groundbreaking Fair Food Program. This program brings workers, growers, and buyers together into a moral collaborative designed to safeguard human rights while efficiently providing fresh produce to America’s consumers.
The Fair Food Program started off as an effort to secure fair wages for farm workers by advocating for a “penny per pound” raise. It took a couple of years to fall into place, but today, the “penny per pound” raise is in full force.  Fair Food companies agree to buy tomatoes for an extra one cent per pound, and in turn, the owners of Fair Food tomato farms pass this premium on to their field workers. So now Burger King pays a grower 23 cents per pound for tomatoes instead of 22, and workers’ wages increase from 1.6 cents per pound to 2.6 cents per pound.
But the Fair Food Program is much more than an assurance of fair pay. It also comes with a comprehensive code of conduct for growers. This code of conduct includes provisions against forced labor, child labor, use or threat of violence, use or display of weapons, and sexual harassment. It requires growers to carefully record work hours, to provide adequate shade, to provide opportunities for advancement, and so on. Growers are expected to cooperate with regular audits by the third-party Fair Food Standards Council.
At the same time, Fair Food buyers are legally bound to purchase tomatoes only from Fair Food growers. This puts pressure on growers to adhere to the Fair Food standards and results in lost business for growers that fail their audits.
To summarize: Fair Food buyers only buy from Fair Food farms, encouraging growers to implement basic workplace standards. Workers are educated—largely by the CIW—on their rights and responsibilities, for without their cooperation, the entire program would fall apart. The program is worker-driven, consumer-powered, and fairly certified.
You might notice one entity prominently absent from the Fair Food Program: the government. This is a purely opt-in, non-coercive program that workers, growers, and buyers have all chosen to participate in. What motivates them? The acknowledgement that the human links of the food chain are inextricably bound to one another and therefore have responsibility for one another. This is a moral program, not a legal one, and as such, its effects are so much more powerful than a law that’s imposed from the top down.
This is consistent with our tradition’s moral message. The prophets preached almost exclusively to the people of Israel, not its kings. In this week’s haftarah reading, Amos exhorts:
Thus said the Eternal:
For three transgressions of Israel,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have sold for silver
Those whose cause was just,
And the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 2:6).
It is all of Israel that bears responsibility for upholding justice and supporting the needy, not just the businessmen or politicians or laborers. Everyone together. That’s why the CIW insists on collaboration and cooperation rather than coercion, asserting that the moral vision of preserving every individual’s human rights is powerful enough to show us the way to a better world.
Where are we today? Amazingly, in recent years, the CIW has achieved terrific success, earning awards not only from the Roosevelt Institute but also from the U.S. State Department and the Clinton Global Initiative. More than 90% of Florida growers have signed on to the Fair Food Program. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have signed on, as well as the fast food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, and Chipotle. Food service providers Aramark, Sodexo, Bon Appetit, and Compass Group bring Fair Food tomatoes to college campuses and hospitals around the country. And, as of January of this year, Walmart, responsible for the purchase of 25% of all grocery goods in the country, has also signed on. Walmart is the subject of deserved scrutiny, but in this instance, this huge company has made a huge difference. Their partnership has allowed the Fair Food Program to grow beyond Florida, reaching also into Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia and has added further amplifications to the program.
Of course, there’s still work to be done. Locally in Florida, the CIW is working tirelessly to bring the grocery chain Publix into the Fair Food Program; and the national Campaign for Fair Food is currently targeting Wendy’s, the only major fast food restaurant that hasn’t signed on. The CIW has not called for a boycott against either of these chains; rather, they’re encouraging community members to ask Publix and Wendy’s managers about the Fair Food Program and to send letters of inquiry and request to regional offices.
Furthermore, there are very soon going to be more and more ways for average consumers like you and me to take an active role in the Campaign. The Fair Foods Standards Council is about to release a label for tomatoes that come from Fair Food farms; we can let our local Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s know that it’s important to us to see this label when it’s available. And with 90% of Florida’s tomato farms already signed on, the CIW is gearing up to spread the Fair Food Program to adjacent industries. Next up: strawberries. Once we consumers see that we can purchase Fair Food tomatoes in the grocery store, we can lobby our stores to support efforts to expand the program to other forms of produce. Ultimately, it is the goal of the CIW to make the standards of the Fair Food Program standard across the American agricultural industry – and then to turn their attention to the global stage.
So there’s a lot of work ahead. And the CIW is truly leading the way. T’ruah is one of many partner organizations that genuinely strive to follow the CIW, to give honor to their on-the-ground perspective and ultimate accountability to the farm workers themselves. Currently, I am coordinating with T’ruah’s Director of Programs, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, to join with other New Jersey Congregations to engage more deeply in this issue. In February or March, we will screen the new documentary Food Chains, which goes deeper into detail about the CIW and the Fair Food Program. And from there, members of this community can join T’ruah and other committed partners in the CIW’s national campaigns. Please speak with me after services—and, more importantly, open your mail when I write to you!—to learn how you can be involved.
Today, we celebrate human rights. We commemorate the UN’s unanimous approval of a bill of rights for all of humanity. We affirm:
These are modern expressions of our ancient teaching, חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְּצֶלֶם, “Beloved is humankind, for they were created in the [divine] image” (Pirkei Avot 3:14). By God’s design, every person bears the signature of the Holy One, and this common sanctity binds us together and makes us responsible for one another. With this thought in our hearts, we offer the Prayer for Human Rights, composed by Rabbi David Freidenreich:
Our God and God of our ancestors, do we not all share one parent? Did not one God create us all? And you have bestowed your dignity upon flesh and blood! It is well-known and obvious in Your sight that whoever can protest against wrongdoing in this world and does not protest is held accountable for what happens in the world.
May it be Your will, therefore, that we act to protect human rights and human dignity. Help us to perceive the Divine Presence in every one of your creations, so that we may find favor and good will in the eyes of God and one another.
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1. Available: http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html.
 Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress played a leading role in the drafting of the Declaration. Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, the greatest international lawyer of the 20th century, drafted the first significant international bill of rights in 1945, which became the guide in many respects for the Declaration. Veteran Zionists such as Felix Bienenfeld in London and Maurice Perlzweig in New York and other prominent Jews such as Moses Moskowitz and Jacob Robinson were also very influential. Jurist Rene Cassin won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the drafting of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Personal correspondence with James Loeffler, December 2014.)
 See the video at http://rooseveltinstitute.org/2013-four-freedoms-awards starting at 37:20.
 http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Florida/Publications/Agriculture_Statistical_Directory/2012/ 2012 FL Ag by the Numbers(FASD).pdf. No other state grows more tomatoes than Florida, and tomatoes are the state’s second most important agricultural export after oranges (see http://www.netstate.com/economy/fl_economy.htm).
 http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Florida/Publications/Agriculture_Statistical_Directory/2012/ 2012 FL Ag by the Numbers(FASD).pdf
 According to http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm/.
 In fact, the premium has risen to 1.5 cents per pound. http://www.fairfoodstandards.org/code.html
 Estimates based on http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/vegetables-pulses/tomatoes.aspx.
 Again, the wage hike is even higher now that the premium is 1.5 cents rather than one penny.
 For more information on the above, see http://www.fairfoodprogram.org/about-the-fair-food-program/ and http://www.fairfoodstandards.org/code.html.
 See http://ciw-online.org/highlights/.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”