Rev. Russell L Meyer, Executive Director
“It is not acceptable to us as a family owned business that agricultural workers have any less rights than folks working in white collar jobs,” said Jon Esformes, operating partner and chief marketing officer of Pacific Tomato Growers. Calling for a public conversation on social responsibility for farmworkers in the field, Esformes joined with Lucas Benítez, Co-Director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in announcing a breakthrough agreement for safe working conditions and wage support on Wednesday, October 13, 2010.
The news conference was a spiritual event. It didn’t happen in a house of worship. It was held on the front lawn of Pacific’s offices in Immokalee under a tent, in the break between misting rain. The obvious joy of the participants confirmed it as a truly spiritual moment. The tense, confrontational encounters of previous decades were not felt and barely remembered. It was a moment of healing.
What made the difference? What made this news conference spiritual? As a theologian, I say that both parties brought the power of God to the table, but the news reports won’t say much about that. The Ft Myers News & Press was an exception in catching Esformes quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘Few are guilty, but all are responsible’. … The transgressions that took place are totally unacceptable today and they were totally unacceptable yesterday.'” For those who don’t know, Rabbi Heschel was a leading light in understanding the Hebrew prophets; both rabbis and pastors have learned at his feet – as well as this farm owner.
A hallmark of the Hebrew prophets is that whether or not we are personally at fault for a particular wrong or injustice, we all have the responsibility to correct however we can whatever wrong we see. The image of God that makes us human does not allow us to turn a blind eye to injustice without also making us blind to our own humanity. That’s why making something right unleashes so much joy in a community. It restores the luster of our soul, the beauty of life together, and the desire to receive God’s goodness.
We were witnesses to these things at the news conference. That’s why it was so spiritual.
The story behind the story is even more telling. The actual agreement was signed on September 17. Esformes had been in Immokalee negotiating with Lucas and other members of CIW. The negotiations had begun over a cup of coffee in which both sides said they just wanted to have a conversation. The previous adversarial tone was set aside, and they shared each other’s concerns. As Friday, September 17, dawned, Esformes pushed to finish the agreement. He needed to return to Los Angeles and his home before nightfall and Yom Kippur began.
Rabbi Mark Borovitz accompanied Esformes. During the services for the High Holy Days at his temple, Rabbi Borovitz asks various lay members to speak of their lives. Esformes gave the final talk on the evening of the Closing of the Gates, a reference to the ancient practice of the closing of the prayers gates to the Jerusalem Temple at the end of the day. He spoke of the journey to reaching the historic agreement between his farm and farm workers. During the High Holy Days, the farm and the workers worked through the protocols and structures necessary to implement the agreement. The public press conference announced the beginning of the new relationship – not just a promise of it. (Read the joint press release here.)
Church people regularly talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. Often though, the talk makes it sound like the Spirit works only in the church. God’s truth paints a different picture
People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening. … When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground. (Psalm 104:23, 30)
Work is a spiritual exercise, and God’s Spirit is active in the fields, not just in providing the growth for the harvest, but also in the relationship between workers and farm owners. God’s Spirit is also at work in produce markets and the local grocery store. When just relationships and fair market practices prevail, the Spirit of God allows all parties to go home happy with their labor at the end of the day. When the power of God is denied in those relationships, then injustice and heartache are felt on both sides of the ledger.
What made the PTG-CIW press conference so clearly spiritual for me was that no one used the term “bottom-line” at any time to justify their decisions. The notion of extracting profit at the expense of somebody’s humanity was as far away as the east is from the west. Instead, Esformes spoke of his family’s desire to have their values reflected in the livelihood of their farms. Isn’t that the case? Our labor does reflect our values. Thank God that the two families that own PTG believe in social responsibility—believe in honoring the image of God in both themselves and their employees.
Such spirituality really does redeem the world. Publix, are you listening! Farmworkers in the fields are family, too! (Go to the Thanksgiving campaign.)
When the Spirit is given to us from heaven,
deserts will become orchards thick as fertile forests.
Honesty and justice will prosper there,
and justice will produce lasting peace and security.
(Isa 32:15-17, CEV)
There are at least 30,000 migrant farmworkers in Florida’s $400 million tomato industry, from which 95 percent of the nation’s tomatoes come between October and June.
Farmworkers helped develop the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food agreement, which requires a strict code of conduct for growers and a penny-per-pound raise.
Under the agreement, harvesters will earn 82 cents for each 32-pound bucket they pick, up from 50 cents per bucket.
The raise means their annual earnings could rise from about $10,000 to between $16,000 and $17,000.
Nine multinational corporations have signed the Fair Food agreement, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Aramark and Sodexo.
(from the Ft Myers News-Press)