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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman April 5, 2016

Did Bernie Sanders fundamentally improve the lives of tomato pickers in Florida?

Bernie Sanders says he successfully changed the lives of exploited tomato workers in Florida.

In an ad for Sanders, which ran nationally on Univision, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., praises Sanders for taking up the plight of Immokalee tomato workers.

"He went and visited personally. Then he came back and convinced Ted Kennedy to hold some hearings, and it fundamentally changed the lives of those workers."

There is no dispute that Sanders, a Vermont senator, was a passionate defender of the tomato workers from Central Florida in 2008. A coalition representing those workers successfully reached an agreement with the growers about two years later to improve pay and working conditions. But how much credit does Sanders get, and has the agreement "fundamentally changed" the workers’ lives?

Sanders’ advocacy on behalf of Immokalee farm workers in 2008

In 2008, Sanders traveled to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represented thousands of tomato workers.

"The conditions here are a disaster. People are being exploited ruthlessly," Sanders said.

Since the coalition couldn’t reach an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange directly, it negotiated with purchasers of tomatoes, asking them to pay a penny-per-pound increase. Yum Brands -- parent of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC -- signed on in 2005, and McDonald’s in 2007, and more would later follow.

Sanders, along with a few other senators, sent letters to food chains and grocery stores urging them to join the campaign, said Warren Gunnels, a spokesman for Sanders’ presidential campaign. Sanders also met with a representative of the growers’ exchange.

On March 13, 2008, Sanders held a press conference on the U.S. Capitol grounds to support a nationwide petition drive on behalf of farm workers.  

He invited the coalition to testify before a Senate committee in April 2008.

"In the United States of America, millions of workers are being forced into a race to the bottom," Sanders testified. "What we have in the tomato fields of Florida are workers who are living on the lowest rung of the ladder in that race to the bottom."

About two and a half years after the hearing -- in November 2010 -- the coalition and the growers’ exchange reached an agreement. It included the penny-per-pound premium and other steps intended to improve working conditions, such as a system to resolve complaints about sexual abuse as well as a health and safety program.

Those involved in the process say Sanders should get some credit for the publicity.

The agreement "probably would have occurred anyway at some point, but we think it is fair to say that Sen. Sanders’ efforts accelerated the process," coalition spokesman Steve Hitov told PolitiFact Florida.

Reggie Brown, a vice president with the growers’ exchange who met with Sanders in 2008, said, "I think he can be fairly given some credit for having had a role."

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Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director at United Farm Workers of America, a group which endorsed Hillary Clinton, says that "it's likely that (Sanders') visit and subsequent work did bring attention to farm workers in Immokalee who deserved support."

Impact of agreement

There is evidence that the agreement between the coalition and the growers has led to some improvements for workers, but there are differences of opinion about the extent of those improvements.

According to the coalition’s most recent annual report, since 2011 the agreement has resulted in nearly $20 million in premiums paid by buyers. Other gains include efforts to reduce sexual assault, the creation of health and safety committees, and resolution of more than 1,000 worker complaints.

"The Fair Food Program has brought about unprecedented levels of compliance with human rights standards in the fields," said Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York Supreme Court justice who serves as the executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council, which monitors the agreement and audits the growers.

The average bucket rate has increased from 40 cents before the agreement to 55 to 65 cents today. But we found no independent research about what that translates to on average per worker, although the coalition cites a range of $30 to $60 per week. Pay is variable due to changing crop conditions and other factors.

Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, has raised some criticisms of the program. He has sued fast food chains on behalf of pickers who he said didn’t get the premium. Since only some purchasers of Florida tomatoes have agreed to pay the premium, not all of the tomatoes a worker picks will include the premium.

"The short answer is that the hearings changed nothing whatsoever in Immokalee," he said. "The hearings did provide a national forum for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has for the past 20 years pressed for higher wages for the tomato workers. However, despite immense publicity for its efforts, the coalition’s efforts have resulted in very minimal wage increases to the workers."

Schell sent us a pay stub of a worker showing the premium was only $1.21 one week while the coalition sent us a pay stub showing $101.06 for another worker. Both are extremes, says coalition attorney Steve Hitov.

A reporter from the Naples Daily News described the tough lives of tomato workers in an article in March. She said "they earn $10 an hour, and that the salaries have changed only a few cents an hour in the past five years." Workers barely earn enough to support their families and live together in trailers.

There is no dispute that picking tomatoes remains a tough job, but "there is no comparison between what existed before and what exists now," says Janice Fine, a labor professor at Rutgers, who has interviewed the workers and has met with the coalition and the growers.

"In my interviews with farmworkers, they talk about a radical transformation in their work lives," she told PolitiFact Florida.

Our ruling

Sanders’ ad says he "fundamentally changed the lives" of Immokalee farm workers in Florida.

Sanders helped give national publicity to the struggles of Immokalee tomato pickers in 2008. He visited with the workers, wrote letters to tomato purchasers urging them to join a program to pay workers more, met with a representative from the growers exchange and held a Senate hearing in 2008.  About two years later, the workers reached an agreement with the growers.

The coalition and the growers’ exchange both say Sanders should get some credit, although it’s likely that the agreement could have been reached without his efforts.

Whether the agreement "fundamentally changed the lives" of the workers is difficult to quantify. The agreement included an increase for purchasers which goes toward pickers, but it’s unclear on average how many dollars more each picker earns per week as a result of it. There have been other successes in the agreement, including the resolution of worker complaints.

We rate this statement Half True.


Our Sources

Bernie Sanders campaign, Ad, March 2016

Bernie Sanders campaign press release, "Tenemos Familias," March 5, 2016

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders press release, "The Harvest of shame,"  Jan. 17, 2008

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders press release, "The race to the bottom," April 14, 2008

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Statement on slavery verdict, Sept. 3, 2008

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "A special comment on Democratic presidential primary race and the Fair Food Program," March 10, 2016

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Fair Food Program annual report, 2015

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Website, Accessed April 4, 2016

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, U.S. Senate hearing, April 15, 2008

Coalition of Immokalee Workers, "PBS Frontline Producer calls Fair Food Program ‘unique in the country,’" June 25, 2013

Naples Daily News, "Immokalee farmworkers skeptical of promises, claims made by Democrat Bernie Sanders and other politicians," March 12, 2016

Palm Beach Post,"Pickers' deal plants seed of discord," (Accessed in Nexis) Oct. 24, 2011

New York Times, "In Florida tomato fields, a penny buys progress," April 24, 2014

New Times, "A Florida Farm County's High Rape Rate Highlights Risks for Migrant Workers," April 22, 2015

Southern Poverty Law Center, "Migrant tomato workers face chronic abuses," April 14, 2008

Interview, Warren Gunnels, Bernie Sanders spokesman, April 1, 2016

Interview, Steve Hitov, Coalition for Immokalee Workers general counsel, April 1, 2016

Interview, Hon. Laura Safer Espinoza, Fair Food Standards Council director, April 1, 2016

Interview, Greg Schell, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project lawyer, April 1, 2006

Interview, Janice Fine, Rutgers University labor professor, April 1, 2016

Interview, Emma Weinstein-Levey, Southern Poverty Law Center spokeswoman, April 1, 2016

Interview, Giev Kashkooli, United Farm Workers of America political and legislative director, March 31, 2016

Interview, Reggie Brown, executive vice president Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, April 1, 2016


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