An Activist’s Retirement: 2001-Present
As Rev. Havens and Lani were busy moving out of their Washington, D.C. residence news broke of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The gravity of the day weighed heavy on their minds as they watched the day’s news coverage.
Ultimately, the two decided that circumnavigating the globe was too dangerous. Besides, life at sea would prevent them from spending time with their children and grandchildren. Staying close to their vacation home in Maine was a priority, but D.C and New York were out of the question.
The couple finally decided on Jensen Beach, Florida, a perfect place for retirees longing for a warmer climate and appreciative of picturesque sunsets. But once settled, Rev. Havens and Lani realized that a day on the links followed by an evening playing bridge suffocated their passion for political activism and social justice. As Rev. Havens explained, “there’s a real escapism culture in Florida.”(1) Instead of joining their neighbors in taking flight, the retirees went in search of a cause.
It didn’t take long for the two to find one.
Like their counterparts around the country, Florida’s environmentalists began showing "An Inconvenient Truth"—the documentary about former Vice President Al Gore’s efforts in raising awareness of global warming—to schools, community organizations, and churches. After attending a showing, Rev. Havens and Lani joined the environmentalists’ efforts.
In 2008, the couple became involved in then Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) campaign for president. According to Lani, this didn’t make she and her husband the most popular couple in a community that’s a Republican bastion.
The Havens’ savored Mr. Obama’s historic victory—a momentous time that those, like Rev. Havens, who participated in the sit-ins, marches, and other events of the civil-rights movement believed one day would come, but perhaps not in their lifetime.
Not accustomed to idleness, the two “rabble rousers” went in search of their next battle. (2)
Rev. Havens had longed wanted to vindicate the lost efforts of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Decades and thousands of miles separated him from the fields of Delano, but the injustice remained visceral.
Perhaps there was as there a farm workers’ organization in Florida that could use the support and expertise of he and his wife?
It turned out there was—the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Originally a Seminole settlement in Southern Florida, Immokalee is home to the state’s multibillion dollar tomato industry. A drained swampland, Immokalee is an inhospitable environment for growing tomatoes or any other crop. It’s sandy soil is deplete of nutrients and repels waters. In order to compensate for this, “the land is bombarded with fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides.” (3)
For decades, Florida’s tomato workers, many of whom are Mexican nationals and living below the poverty line, have been exploited stooping and handpicking this fruit born of toxic brew. Growers have often paid a pittance for hours under the suffocating heat of the Florida sun. Some labor contractors have engaged in human trafficking, enslaving workers whose only taste of freedom is trudging through rows of tomato vines. And at times, crew bosses have sexually harassed female employees, threatening the loss of employment with their unwanted advances.
In 1993 things began to change. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed. As a grassroots organization, the CIW borrowed tactics from Cesar Chavez’s union, engaging in strikes, boycotts, and marches against local growers. Slowly the lives and the working conditions of Florida’s tomato workers steadily improved. But soon the CIW realized that effecting lasting change meant targeting the the top of the supply chain where prices of tomatoes are set and overhead costs, including workers’ wages, are formulated.
Once Immokale’s tomato harvesting season begins, the commodity is sold by the tons to both supermarket and fast-food restaurant chains.
Realizing that the scope of its cause could widen, the CIW established the Fair Food Program (FFP)—a program that compels those linked to the Immokalee tomato supply chain to guarantee “humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.” (4)
Under the FFP’s provisions, the supermarket and fast-food chains that are signatories agree to pay growers an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. The extra-cent is then added to the workers’ wages resulting in a “20 to 35 percent weekly pay increase.” (5)
Meanwhile, the affected growers “follow strict standards that mandate rest breaks and forbid sexual harassment and verbal abuse.” (6) Growers must also provide respite from the blistering sun, erecting canopies throughout the fields where workers can rest. In addition, “growers must clock in workers as soon as they are bused to the fields” even if the work waits while the morning dew evaporates. (7)
Through the use of boycott, the CIW has brought companies such as Yum Brand Foods, the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, to sign the FFP. And last January, Walmart signed on—a huge victory for the CIW and its supporters.
The CIW hopes that its partnership with the retail giant will signal to those still refusing to negotiate, namely Wendy’s fast-food restaurant and the Publix supermarket chain, that striking a balance between worker’s rights and a company’s bottom line is not only ethical, but possible.
Like Chavez’s union, the CIW has sought allies in its efforts, and, according to Lani, this has been a “critical component” for its success. (8)
Today, the CIW is backed by Interfaith Action and the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Interfaith Action is a coalition of churches, synagogues, and other religious groups that “brings the spiritual resources of diverse faith traditions and the moral weight of faith-based voices in society to our work in collaboration” with the CIW, according to its website.
As a member of Interfaith Action, Treasure Coast Fair Food (TCFF) is an organization founded by a dozen individuals, including Rev. Havens and Lani. “Through action and education’” the group “encourages Florida’s Treasure Coast communities to choose socially responsible Fair Food for their families…,” while “advocating the principles of the Fair Food Program and the mission” of the CIW, according to its website.
Despite its diminutive size, TCFF has galvanized local awareness of CIW’s efforts, making presentations to local churches and community groups, participating in a 200 mile march to Publix headquarters, picketing outside a Wendy’s restaurant dressed in the red pig-tail hairstyle that distinguishes the young girl on the company’s logo, and, most recently, sponsoring a screening of "Food Chains" (a newly released documentary on the CIW’s history, its efforts at reform, and the Fair Food Program.)
Rev. Havens and Lani are amazed by CIW’s success. The organization has seemed to sidestep many of the pitfalls that eventually doomed Chavez’s union.
For example, there’s not a single, charismatic leader who imprints his or hers priorities on the organization’s efforts. Chavez did this countless times, alienating himself from the union’s rank and file, while angering and confusing his political and financial supporters with his vacillating leadership style.
Unlike Chavez who silenced opposition within through purges, the CIW works on the model of “a very deliberate inclusiveness in decision making”. (9) In other words, the CIW is a truly egalitarian organization that welcomes its members to an open and honest discussion about improving their lives.
And perhaps what’s more telling of the CIW’s achievements is the fact that “the gringos…are staying clear” this time. (10)
To read Part 1 in this series, click here.
To read Part 2 in this series, click here.
To read Part 3 in this series, click here.
To read Part 4 in this series, click here.
To read Part 5 in this series, click here.
To read Part 6 in this series, click here.
1. Reverend David W. Havens and his wife Lani, phone interview by author, Hollister, CA, April 27, 2014.
3. Jennifer Mascia, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Immokalee, Florida," New York Times, June 15, 2011.
4. Fair Food Program, “The Fair Food Program, http://www.fairfoodprogram.org (accessed December 2014).
5. Steven Greenhouse, “In Florida Tomato Fields, a Penny Buys Progress,” New York Times, April 25, 2014.
8. Reverend David W. Havens and his wife Lani, phone interview by author, Hollister, CA, April 27, 2014.