January 2010, Volume 16, Number 1
Florida, NC, GA
Tomatoes. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has targeted buyers of Florida tomatoes since the early 1990s, trying to persuade them to require the growers of mature green slicing tomatoes used in fast-food sandwiches to pay their pickers an additional penny a pound (mature green tomatoes are gassed to turn them red). Most growers pay pickers $0.40 to $0.45 per 32-pound bucket.
After boycotts, fast-food chains beginning with Yum Brands (Taco Bell) began to sign agreements with the CIW offering their suppliers an additional 1.5 cents a pound for tomatoes, with one cent for pickers and a half cent for administrative costs. However, major Florida growers have refused to implement the CIW-fast food chain agreements, and the extra 1.5 cents is accumulating in escrow. By some estimates, about $2 million was in escrow for tomato pickers at the end of 2009.
The CIW extended the campaign to food retailers and food-service providers, winning agreements with Whole Foods and Compass Group. East Coast Brokers and Packers, with 7,000 acres of tomatoes in Florida, resigned from the Florida Tomato Exchange in September 2009 and signed an agreement with Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and the CIW. Chipotle will pay an extra 1.5 cents for Florida tomatoes, and East Coast will increase tomato picker wages by a cent a pound.
In Fall 2009, the CIW focused on Sodexho and Aramark, food-service firms that serve meals in cafeterias, and began to picket Publix, a major supermarket chain.
The Six L's Packing Company, owned by the Lipman Family Companies, was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November 2009 for harassing 17 Haitian workers. Six L's denied the charge, noting that it employs up to 1,000 Haitian workers to pack tomatoes.
The Palm Beach County Economic Development Office called attention to the 32 percent unemployment rate in Belle Glade, the heart of Florida's sugar cane industry. Almost 40 percent of Belle Glade residents receive Food Stamps, and 85 percent of K-12 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. A lack of available land, most of which is controlled by sugar companies, prevents new industries from moving to the area.
Oranges. Florida's bearing acreage of oranges dipped under 400,000 in 2009, as growers continued to grapple with urbanization, disease, and lower priced Brazilian orange juice. Over 90 percent of Florida's oranges are picked by hand for about $0.80 a box. Most of the 20,000 pickers harvest 8-10 boxes an hour for 1,200 to 1,500 hours a year, earning up to $15,000.
Oranges destined for juice can be harvested by machine, but less than 10 percent are because pickers are available. Currently, machines harvest 80 percent of the oranges on a tree (compare to more than 95 percent for hand harvesters), and machines can remove next year's Valencia oranges during late harvests in May and June.
An abscission chemical, CMNP, that loosens ripe fruit but does not affect next year's crop may spur mechanical harvesting of Florida's Valencia oranges. By reducing the amount of force required to pick ripe fruit, mechanical harvesting can save next year's crop while decreasing debris and increasing the efficiency of machine harvesting, that is, leave less ripe fruit on the tree.
In early January 2010, growers braced for crop damage due to cold weather-- temperatures below 28 degrees for at least four hours damage oranges and other crops. Most farmers irrigate their crops when the temperature dips below 32 degrees, as the ice protects the fruit. The last big Florida freeze was in 1989; earlier devastating Florida freezes were in 1962 and 1835.
North Carolina. Beginning January 1, 2010, smoking is banned in North Carolina bars and restaurants. Between 1978 and 2008, tobacco production fell by over 50 percent to 390 million pounds, and the share of farm income from tobacco fell from 34 to seven percent. About 21 percent of North Carolina adults smoked in 2008, compared with 18 percent of US adults.
The Washington Post on November 10, 2009 reported that the unemployment rate in the Hickory, North Carolina area, home to textile and furniture factories, topped 15 percent in Fall 2009 as a result of layoffs due to freer trade. Laid-off factory workers can receive Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). The federal government spends $1 billion a year providing extended TAA unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs due to freer trade.
TAA recipients can also undergo training for new jobs. However, many of those who complete retraining programs do not find jobs that pay as much as they earned before displacement, especially those over 40.
Between 2002 and 2009, DOL certified more than 90,000 jobs in North Carolina as lost because of foreign competition, the most of any state. Laid-off factory workers often retrain at local community colleges in accounting, air conditioning, nursing and medical technology. Many workers who previously earned $15 to $20 an hour in manufacturing earn half as much after retraining in service jobs.
Georgia. Georgia Works is a state program that allows jobless workers receiving unemployment insurance (UI) benefits to "train" with a potential employer up to 24 hours a week for six weeks. The worker does not receive wages from the employer, but may receive up to $50 a week from the state to cover child care and transportation costs. The state says that Georgia Works allows employers to "take a chance" on jobless workers with no risk; some unions complain that the program violates the Fair Labor Standards Act because workers do not earn a wage.
Georgia says that the program is especially useful for jobless workers who want to change careers. Between March 2003 and September 2009, some 6,000 workers completed their training periods and 3,300 were hired. Employers participating in the program must sign agreements pledging to teach participants new skills. The Texas Back-to-Work Initiative is similar to Georgia Works.
Jennifer Sorentrue and Jason Schultz, "Depression-level unemployment dampens spirits in the Glades," Palm Beach Post, November 12, 2009.