A scholarly study of an effort by Florida farmworkers to improve working conditions by building partnerships along the supply chain.
In the United States, the majority of consumers give little thought to where their food comes from. On that score alone, Marquis (Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operation Forces, 1997), vice president of innovation for the RAND Corporation, does good service with this exploration of labor organization in the tomato fields of Florida. Picking produce is a skilled trade; one of the author’s interviewees, former NFL star Edgerrin James, got essential training in the watermelon patches, where workers throw 20-pound fruits like giant footballs. “Thousands of times a day they must pitch melons to another worker up to ten feet away,” Marquis notes, all the while judging which ones are ready to harvest and without breaking any—and all for 16 hours per day. The growers relied first on African-American and then Latino immigrant labor, fueled by traffickers in undocumented and homeless workers, all without giving much thought to health and safety. In response, and against the odds, the field workers carefully organized over the last two decades; as they did, they transformed important aspects of the industry. Said one grower at first, “the tractor doesn’t tell me how to run my farm,” a sentiment that explains the book’s title. In time, however, most producers willingly signed on to the Fair Food Program and other accords, and with them large-scale outlets such as Whole Foods and McDonald’s. The former has been enthusiastic about the Campaign for Fair Food, while, as Marquis notes, many fast-food purveyors profess interest in so-called social responsibility but in practice have been reluctant “to be held responsible for what was going on several levels below in the supply chain.” The author writes accessibly about the workers’ long struggle, though the narrative sometimes slows when dealing with the complex negotiations—understandably, precisely because they are so complex.
A solid work of labor history that offers valuable lessons for other activists and organizers.