Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More on Tomatoes and Justice

I submit the following in response to a very well-thought-out email I received concerning our stand on the tomato pickers versus Burger King and the growers. You can infer what this man wrote in my reply:

Whether an evil such as slavery, or even "just" exploitation, is performed by whites, blacks, browns, greens, or reds, no civilized society can tolerate it. Allowing such a thing to continue demeans us all as human beings. Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist and the conscience of our nation, said as much in his writings and speeches in the 1840s and '50s. Whether the bad guys are Anglo or fellow Latinos, what they are doing is wrong and must be stopped.

I think that if the workers of Immokalee, and Florida in general, could influence the growers who employ them, they would. I think that it is more effective for them to pressure public corporations with images to protect, and so I can't blame them for taking that tack. They are in desperate straits.

At the same time that we are trying to help the poor, possibly uneducated, probably illegal field workers in Immokalee, we are also working to provide a better education to their children so that they can grow to have choices of careers in the middle class or better. (When I say "we," I want to point out that The Naples Institute is a small part of this effort, and late to arrive).

The old style thinking, that an unfettered market will pay what supply and demand dictates, is not a workable solution in an advanced economy. The Robber Barons of the 19th and early 20th Centuries exploited their workers similarly because they could. There is clearly so much unskilled labor eager to pick tomatoes at any rate of pay that the wages will never increase if the government or customers - in this case, McDonald's, Yum! Brands, and Burger King - don't step in to help solve such problems.

Another aspect to consider is that underpaid workers harm our economy. They cannot afford to buy our products, and so do not stimulate the economy the way that middle-class workers do. For better or for worse, the US economy is dependant on the extravagant spending of its vast middle class. Low-paid workers also strain our social programs, as they require public assistance for services such as health care, and they do not pay the taxes needed to support the community. A lot of attention has been paid recently to how Wal-Mart, among other low-wage employers, is actually subsidized by taxpayers because of the services rendered versus taxes paid by employees. This is corporate welfare. I don't pay my taxes to support Wal-Mart or to support the growers in rural Florida, either.

When Henry Ford doubled the rate he was paying his workers, from $2.50/day to $5/day, his fellow capitalists called him a socialist, a class-traitor, dangerous, and deranged. The Wall Street Journal railed against him. But the result was that our nation's economy was stimulated wildly; he actually created a market for his cars among his own employees, and other businesses added to this because they were forced to raise their pay as well, creating still more consumers. He was no saint, and he raised pay to benefit his own business by attracting and keeping the best employees, not to be nice. But Henry Ford literally created the middle class and the modern economy.

I don't see any down-side to corporations paying one additional penny per pound for tomatoes. I think it's important that we keep this in perspective: what is one penny per pound, to anyone? Yet multiplied over the number of pounds the workers can pick in an hour, they are able to double their pay! It's a brilliant, simple solution to a grievous problem.

That's my take, anyway.