by Billy Wharton
For one evening, at least, the supermarket chain Trader Joe’s was unable to enforce its pledge to provide “distraction free shopping.” While a sign advertising this pledge encourages consumers to “feel free to ignore anyone with a clipboard or cheap folding table without feeling any guilt at all,” the crowd outside the door could not be ignored. Having a marching band helps. The protesters were allies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who assembled to demand that Trader Joe’s sign an agreement that would increase wages by 1 cent for every bushel of tomatoes the workers pick.
Trader Joe’s is the latest target of the CIW. Taco Bell and Burger Kind were forced to sign agreements after protracted struggles. WholeFoods gave in without a fight choosing to defend its brand name from bad publicity. Trader Joe’s shares a similar image as a provider of organic foods making it a natural target for the worker’s group. Today’s demonstration was the first step toward escalating the campaign.
More than 100 people participated in the demonstration, lining the sidewalk in front of the store. The allies’ network was broad, drawn from more mainstream activist organizations such as Make the Road New York to radical political groups such as the IWW and Socialist Party USA. All were united behind the demands for dignity and justice being issued from the small South Florida town of Immokalee.
Customers entering and exiting the store were receptive to the message of the protesters. Most took flyers from activists and some stopped to talk. They were informed that the Farmworker Solidarity Alliance, CIW’s ally group in New York City, had not yet called for a full boycott, but was asking customers to encourage management to meet the worker’s demands.
Many were amazed at stories of the modern day forms of slavery farm workers in Florida have faced. Activists described the recent Slavery Museum tour sponsored by the CIW that visited New York.
One moment of note during the demonstration came when a passer-by in his late 20s railed against the demonstrations “for not caring about people here.” The fellow shouted angrily about defending workers in New York City not some far away place in Florida. Organizers were sympathetic to this argumentative fellow and he left the demonstration CIW flyer in hand. His comments, though, express the need to extend the struggle for justice into many other sectors of society.
Today’s demonstration will be followed up by a teach-in on the struggle of the CIW workers. And the marching band was the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a self-organized association of musicians who belted out tunes ranging from Lady Gaga to protest classics such as Bella Ciao. If Trader Joe’s management decides to dig in and deny the farmworker’s demands there will be many more days of “distraction filled shopping” for their customers. The march ended with the chant “We’ll be back and we’ll be stronger; We won’t take this any longer.” This was no idle threat.
Billy Wharton is the editor of the Socialist WebZine, a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and In These Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org