Chances are when you pick up a tomato at the supermarket or pull a slice of one off your burger, you’re not really thinking about where it came from, but for a group of immigrant workers in Florida, your sandwich topping can sometimes mean life or death.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is an extraordinary membership-led farmworker organization made up of mostly immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. They are paid an average of 50 cents for every 32 lbs. of tomatoes they pick — and have been stuck at that rate since 1980. That means most farmworkers earn less than $12,000 a year.

According to the Department of Labor, “Production of fruits and vegetables has increased and global demand for American produce continues to grow, but agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline.”

Many of the workers come to Florida from Mexico, looking to support their families back home, only to end up worse off.  In an effort to improve their lives, the CIW fight for fair wages and safer work conditions.

A typical day for a farmworker begins at 4:30 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m. If the schedule alone were not torture, their actual work consists of slave-like perks like hot blazing sun beating down on you, back breaking manual labor, and personal health risks.  To hear it in their own words watch this documentary about the CIW.

In 2001, after failed hunger strikes and lack of governmental support, the CIW upped their game and launched the Campaign for Fair Food which aims to harness the purchasing power of the food industry for the betterment of farmworker wages and working conditions by calling on major buyers of tomatoes to pay one penny more per pound for their tomatoes (which will in turn increase the picker’s wages), and work together with the CIW to establish and implement a code of conduct in their supply chains.

The Campaign for Fair Food marked the first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company: Taco Bell. The CIW took the Taco Bell Truth Tour on the road until 2005 when they finally got the winning verdict for which they had hoped.

The Taco Bell win helped to establish several crucial precedents for farm labor reform, including ongoing direct payment to farmworkers (nearly doubling the percentage that goes to workers), a Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers in the fast food industry (which includes the CIW as part of the investigative body for monitoring worker complaints), market incentives for agricultural suppliers willing to respect their workers’ human rights, and 100 percent transparency for tomatoes sold in Florida.

If that weren’t enough of a gain, those precedents helped them not only win again in 2007, this time with fast food magnate McDonalds, but it convinced the burger chain to collaborate on developing an industry-wide third party to monitor conditions in the fields, making them an even stronger force to recon with.  And in 2008, Burger King and Subway joined the team. Anyone who’s ever been to an airport food court knows these four are at the top of the list.

With a strong hold in the fast food world, the CIW went on to tackle supermarkets, adding organic mega chain, Whole Foods, to the collabo-roster. Whole Foods, in turn, went on to secure the cooperation of two of Florida’s largest organic growers — putting an end to a two-year stalemate.

Even more progress for the CIW occurred in 2009, when Bon Appétit Management Co., a division of food service giant Compass Group, became the first food service company to step up. And in 2010, using their power as the drive-thru target market, the Student/Farmworker Alliance‘s “Dine with Dignity” campaign brought the remaining food service industry leaders into the fold, putting an end to the “harvest shame.”

With the additional corporate feathers in their cap, the CIW were able to sign an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to extend their Fair Food principles, “including a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process.” That means real, concrete changes are already underway, such as a penny per pound wage increase, clocking in so that even their pick-up times are included into their work hours, no longer having to over-fill their buckets to be counted, and receiving worker education. And the campaign continues.

In 2012, Trader Joe’s became the tenth corporation overall and the second supermarket to sign a Fair Food Agreement with the CIW.

The CIW and Sumofus.org are currently trying to get the restaurant chain, Chipotle, who already claim a commitment to “food with integrity,” to sign an agreement stating that they will abide by their codes of conduct instead of going it alone as they have been. If you want to help get Chipotle on board, you can sign this petition. If you want to support the CIW and help get the remaining supermarket chains and fast food restaurants on board, you can take action here, or simply avoid patronizing restaurants and markets that have yet to sign on and frequent businesses that have.

Whether hands-on political action is your thing or not, the amazing strides the CIW has made are proof that grassroots campaigning works. If it’s all just too much for you, forget about stopping abuse or treating people fairly and humanly, doesn’t knowing you are improving someone’s quality of life make your food taste better?

Main photo credit: NESRI/Flickr; video credit: Jeff Imig