|Tomato picker shares personal story at forum|
Farm worker advocates Romeo Ramirez and Brigitte Gynther
speak at the 2008 Young Adult Ecumenical Forum in Washington D.C. A UMNS
photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
June 20, 2008 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was organized in Florida after a
young migrant farm worker was brutally beaten when he stopped to get a
drink of water while picking tomatoes.
Outraged, other farm workers marched to the tomato grower's home, carrying the young man's bloody shirt as a flag.
"We told him by beating one of us, he was beating all of us," said Romeo
Ramirez, a farm worker who is now a member of the coalition.
More than 600 laborers marched that night in 1996, helping the workers to realize that there is power in organizing.
Ramirez shared his story with young adults gathered for the 2008 Young
Adult Ecumenical Forum focusing on slavery and human trafficking in the
21st century. The June 12-15 forum was held at Wesley Theological
Seminary, a United Methodist-related school in Washington. Also speaking
was Brigitte Gynther with the group Interfaith Action of Southwest
Florida, which has worked with farm workers in their battle to gain
equal rights and fair pay.
Workers harvest tomatoes at a farm
in Immokalee, Fla. A UMNS photo
by Scott Robertson.
Ramirez traveled to Immokalee, Fla., in 1996 to escape poverty in
Guatemala after farm industry recruiters came to his village promising a
better life. "They go to Mexico or other countries and say, 'Come with
us, we have a great job for you,'" he said. "When they get them to
Florida, they are sold to contractors."
Before organizing, many workers were not paid for their labor and often
were abused by supervisors in the fields. When the workers first shared
their stories with the U.S. Department of Justice, officials did not
"He won't tell you this, but Romeo risked his life to get evidence for
the department," Gynther said, sharing that Ramirez went undercover to
gather evidence against the growers. Six slavery rings have since been
prosecuted and another is under federal investigation, according to
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers now has more than 3,500 members
and just reached an agreement with the fast-food chain Burger King to
increase the pay for farm workers and make tomato growers abide by a
"code of conduct" eliminating abuses against the workers. Yum! Brands
and McDonalds also have agreed to pay one penny more per pound to the
tomato pickers and to only use tomato growers who follow the code of
The first victory for the grassroots organization came in 2005 when Taco
Bell agreed to improve working conditions for tomato pickers in Florida
after four years of talks and boycotts. The United Methodist Church
supported the boycotts.
The coalition now is working to get Subway, Whole Foods and Chipotle to agree to the same terms.
"During the Taco Bell boycott, it was just amazing to have that support
from the church. It was really powerful," said Gynther, citing the
support of United Methodist Bishop Timothy Whitaker, episcopal leader of
the church's Florida Area. "It was so heartening to have him come to
visit Immokalee and visit the farm workers."
Ramirez agrees. "It is good for us that The United Methodist Church is
not only worried about the spiritual parts of our faith but also about
the teachings of our faith," he said. "The United Methodist Church is a
church that lives out their faith."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Romeo Ramirez: “…fair conditions and dignity.”
Romeo Ramirez: “…the workers are the ones affected.”
Young adults address slavery, human trafficking
United Methodists declare victory for farm workers
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida
United Methodist Board of Church and Society