Students canvass for farmers’ rights

Nov. 19, 2010, 3:00 a.m.

Six members of the Stanford Farm Project (SFP) in Hawaiian-themed shirts braved the cold outside Trader Joe’s in Palo Alto yesterday, asking shoppers to join the fight for farm workers in Florida with the tagline, “When was the last time you got a raise?” The farm workers they intended to help haven’t received one in 30 years.

The canvassing event was a joint effort by Stanford Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) and SFP, students groups dedicated to supporting workers’ rights and the development of fair and sustainable food systems, respectively. Daniel Murray, a third-year graduate student in modern thought and literature and a member of both groups, coordinated the event.

Murray and the group solicited signatures from shoppers for a petition addressed to the manager of Trader Joe’s—their contribution to the first National Supermarket Week of Action. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), a national network of youth based in Florida, led the week-long, nationwide event, which ends on Sunday.

“Many farm workers are denied safe, healthy working conditions, are paid poverty wages, suffer intimidation and in some cases are victims of modern-day slavery,” Murray said.

Stanford’s letter urged Trader Joe’s to join forces with CIW, a farmworker organization based in Immokalee, Fla., as part of a landmark agreement to extend CIW’s “fair food principles” to 90 percent of the state’s tomato farm workers. The partnership would aim to ensure that workers earn minimum wage.

According to the letter, the tomato farm workers, who produce 95 percent of the country’s tomatoes, are paid 50 cents for every 32 pounds, a level that has remained the same since 1980. At this rate, a worker must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to reach the equivalent of the minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday.

Students canvass for farmers' rights
Trader Joe's shoppers Mike Siegel and Ryan Wistory from San Francisco sign a petition to win higher wages for tomato growers in Florida. (CASSANDRA FELICIANO/The Stanford Daily)

The groups allege workers are also often denied a number of workers’ rights, including overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid vacations, pension and the ability to form unions to improve working conditions.

The choice by SFP to canvass at Trader Joe’s—CIW is also targeting Publix, Ahold, Kroger and WalMart—is motivated by a sense of duty as well as its close proximity to campus.

“As students who shop at Trader Joe’s and as Trader Joe’s is part of our community, we feel that we have a responsibility to struggle in solidarity with these farm workers to ensure that Trader Joe’s continues to improve their sustainability and labor standards,” Murray said, adding that the success would result in a formal agreement on Trader Joe’s part to “guarantee that they will be buying from farms that agree with the fair food policy.”

Murray said Trader Joe’s is reluctant to sign what would be a landmark agreement because it already buys from growers who meet those conditions. But SFP and SLAC remain especially skeptical, Murray said, because Trader Joe’s officials are silent on the exact details of where they get their produce.

The canvassers stayed for an hour and at the end of the night had a collection of at least 50 signatures. Murray also coordinated a canvassing effort last Sunday, for which three students showed up.

“It’s good to test the waters, to figure out what we’re doing,” Murray said. “It’s tough this time of year. A lot of students are freaking out about classes.”

Within five minutes of their canvassing Thursday night, the Trader Joe’s store manager asked them to move away from the front of the store. The manager said the Town and Country Village, where Trader Joe’s is located, has a “designated zone” for such activities as canvassing.

But the canvassers remained undeterred.

“Though our action was small, when combined with all of the actions happening around the country this week, the impact is much greater and our voices are much louder,” Murray said. “We hope that Trader Joe’s will listen, but if they won’t this time, we will be back out there, and we will be stronger.”

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Deadline Extended!