Main Menu

Florida Conference ramps up efforts to help farm workers

Florida Conference ramps up efforts to help farm workers

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida Conference ramps up efforts to help farm workers

June 25, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0873}

An e-Review Feature
By Mary Lee Downey**

LAKELAND — Imagine a life of hardship and poverty.

You wake up at dawn and spend all day picking produce, filling as many 32-pound buckets as you can. As night falls you are charged $5 to take a shower with a garden hose and then chained inside a box truck to sleep.

Some farm workers in Florida have not only imaged that kind of life, they’ve lived it. The Florida Conference and several advocacy groups are working together to ensure other farm workers don’t have to go through the same experience.

Roberta Perry (left), Melinda Trotti (second from left) and other farm worker advocates prepare to talk with members during the ministry expo at the 2008 Florida Annual Conference Event about efforts to ensure fair wages and working conditions for Florida farm workers. Perry is Florida director of the National Farm Worker Ministry. Trotti is director of the Florida Conference Justice and Spiritual Formation Ministries. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #08-0908.

Representatives of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida and the National Farm Worker Ministry met with Florida Conference members during the 2008 Florida Annual Conference Event May 29-31 to share that goal and explain why it is important Florida United Methodists remember farm workers and their struggles.

A history of advocacy

Roberta Perry, Florida director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, traces the involvement of the Florida Conference in farm worker reform back to the early 1970s when the National Farm Worker Ministry’s organizer, Cesar Chavez, called on Christians to stand in solidarity with workers.

Perry says Chavez told people of faith, “We appreciate your charity, but sooner or later you’re going to run out of blankets in churches.”

“When that happened here in Florida in the early ’70s it caused a great divide among church people — between those who only understood charity to farm workers and then people who wanted to move beyond just charity and help farm workers,” she said.

Among those who felt called to make the giant leap to help church people understand the importance of both helping farm workers and changing the system, Perry says, were several United Methodist pastors considered movers and shakers in the Florida Conference.

Perry said Florida United Methodists have been “passing resolutions in support of Florida farm workers” for more than 30 years. “It’s two generations farther down than those early people in Florida who participated, but they knew how important it was and how much it enhances someone’s faith to really realize that they can share something other than their clothes and their blankets,” she said.

Because “some people in agriculture want to consider farm workers the way they consider their other equipment,” Perry says it is important for Florida Conference United Methodists to remember their advocacy history and continue that ministry. She says Florida United Methodists can work together again to accept the challenge to address the deeper justice issues.

Helping big business get on board

Brigitte Gynther understands Chavez’s call well.

As coordinator of Interfaith Action in Southwest Florida, Gynther has worked for the past four years on campaign after campaign to help improve the wages and living conditions of Florida farm workers.

Interfaith Action is a network of people of faith and religious institutions that works in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based worker organization whose members are mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout Florida.

Gynther’s and the coalition’s work to improve conditions for farm workers recently saw results. The Burger King Corporation signed an agreement with the coalition May 23 to increase wages paid to tomato pickers by 1 cent per pound. An additional .5 cents will be paid to growers to help them with administrative costs and encourage their participation in the agreement. The fast-food giant also agreed to enforce a code of conduct against forced labor and other examples of modern-day slavery.

Gynther credits United Methodists for helping move that contract signing along through letter- and postcard-writing campaigns to Burger King and by signing petitions. “A lot of United Methodists participated in petitions,” Gynther said.

Gynther wants United Methodists to know it is because of them that so much has been done to ensure a market of fair treatment is being encouraged in farm work, especially related to the Burger King agreement.

“I think that, having all the letters, it got their attention in the first place,” Gynther said. “I think eventually they realized that it’s actually much easier to and much simpler to do the right thing.”

Melinda Trotti presents petitions April 28 to the Miami headquarters of Burger King Corporation. The petitions, signed by United Methodist Women, ask for improved working conditions for workers in Immokalee. A UMNS photo by Brigitte Gynther. File photo #08-0894. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0867/June 12, 2008.

Gynther says church members who are also shareholders in the company participated in the letter-writing campaign. “All those different levels of engagement by people, by Christians … they started changing their behavior,” Gynther said.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker was among those who wrote to Burger King. The Florida Conference’s Justice and Spiritual Formation Ministries team has also been an advocate of change. The ministry’s new director, Melinda Trotti, began working with Whitaker on advocacy related to the Burger King agreement in January, and she was encouraged to take a stand against unfair treatment of farm workers.

“I had a heart and passion for it,” Trotti said. “And with Bishop Whitaker’s support, it was a match made in heaven.”

Trotti presented petitions April 28 at Burger King’s Miami headquarters that were signed by United Methodist Women and asked for improved working conditions for workers in Immokalee.

Although new to her conference-level justice ministries position, Trotti is not new to farm worker issues. Before moving to Florida several years ago, she was involved in farm worker ministries in New York and recalls how she explained the importance of helping workers to United Methodists there.

“I love to tell the story (about) when we would go to Long Island.” Trotti said. “I knew every time someone would ask, ‘Why should I care about farm worker issues here in Long Island?’ And I said, ‘Do you eat?’ And they would say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then don’t you care about toilets in the fields and whether or not people have a place to wash their hands after using the toilet before picking your lettuce or apples?’ Then it came home real quick.”

“If people eat, then they need to be concerned,” Trotti said.

Ending today’s slavery

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers work to help larger companies like Burger King understand they must not treat their workers unfairly. They also encourage the companies to set an example for others in the farm business, such as tomato growers.

In addition to the Burger King pact, wage agreements have also been negotiated with the McDonald’s Corporation and Yum Brands Inc., owner of Taco Bell.

Brigitte Gynther (right) talks with a member attending this year’s annual conference session about efforts to improve wages and living and working conditions for Florida’s farm workers. Gynther is coordinator of Interfaith Action in Southwest Florida. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #08-0909.

But the coalition’s work goes beyond fighting for better wages. The organization spends a significant amount of time and energy working to end a practice of which most people are not aware — modern-day slavery.

“In November of 2007 tomato pickers were locked in the back of a box truck,” Gynther said. “They were beaten and, in one case, they were chained to a pole, and they were horribly, horribly treated. One night they escaped through the ventilation hatch and got out.”

Gynther says the coalition’s advocacy work contributed to a grand jury indictment of six people in Florida for their treatment of workers. It was the seventh case on which the coalition had worked.

“This happened in Florida,” Gynther said. “There have been multiple cases of this type of thing happening … and we will continue to find these types of cases and bring them to court.”

More work to do

It’s a cause that continues. The Farm Worker Ministry is working to engage young people and youth to make changes. It is also encouraging churches to get involved and learn about potential campaigns and boycotts. Coalition of Immokalee Workers is currently campaigning with Subway and Chipotle, Gynther says, to encourage them to also raise their wages.

“We are hoping that they will step up and participate and insure fair rates for the tomato picker,” Gynther said.

“I believe people of good conscience, as well as faith people, have the social, economic and political power to convince these corporations to treat people as employees,” Perry said. “Nobody should care — unless you eat.”

More information about farm worker and other justice advocacy issues is available by contacting Trotti at 800-282-8011, extension 504, or


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Downey is a freelance writer based in Kissimmee, Fla., and director of programming and evangelism at First United Methodist Church, Kissimmee.