Peace award recognizes coalition’s efforts

Katie Eder

The 2010 Adela Dwyer-St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award was presented to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as part of the Center for Peace and Justice Education’s Oscar Romero Lecture Series at 4 p.m. on March 16.

Founded in 1993, the CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. 

Their motto, “Consciousness + Commitment = Change,” exemplifies how their members act to build strength as a community through reflection and analysis, constant attention to coalition-building across ethnic divisions and an ongoing investment in leadership development to help its members develop skills in education and organization. 

Southwest Florida is the state’s most important center for agricultural production, and Immokalee is the state’s largest farm worker community. 

In the fields, workers are paid an average of 45 cents per 32 pound bucket of tomatoes, a rate which has not risen significantly since 1978. 

In order to make the equivalent of Florida’s minimum wage in a typical 10-hour work day, the workers must pick and haul 160 buckets, or two and a half tons, of tomatoes. 

With approximately 4,000 members, the CIW fights for fair wages, respect from supervisors, improved working conditions, increased harvest price rates, better and cheaper housing, stronger laws and enforcement for workers’ rights and the right to organize without fear of retaliation.

They strive to end modern-day slavery in the fields.

“In choosing the recipient of the peace award, the staff agreed to direct attention to organizations that are committed to seeking justice for workers,” said William Werpehowski, the director for the CPJE. “It’s a theme which complements this year’s Oscar Romero series, as well as the Office for Mission and Ministry’s upcoming conference on worker justice.”

Brigitte Gynther, coordinator of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, and Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a farm worker and member of the CIW, accepted the peace award on behalf of the CIW. 

Gynther acted as a translator for Chavez, who only spoke Spanish as he described the hardships of the Immokalee farm workers, the state of low-wage work in Florida and the achievements of the CIW. 

During the presentation, Chavez drew symbols of several familiar companies, such as McDonald’s golden arches and Taco Bell’s Chihuahua, and then asked the students in the audience what the slogans and songs were for each of the corporations, to which everyone replied unanimously within seconds.

After this exercise, Gynther asked, “Do you ever think about the farm workers who pick the tomatoes for these companies when you see their symbols?” 

Then the room went silent. 

“We hope that the day will come when no one will be ashamed to work in the fields,” Gynther said. “We need you [students] to get involved with our campaign to stop companies who do nothing about the slavery cases of their farm workers.”  

The CIW held an education protest at the Giant in Plymouth Meeting just hours before accepting the peace award. 

Giant, which owns Stop & Shop and other supermarkets, has yet to join in working with the CIW to end the exploitation of the farm workers who pick its tomatoes. 

The CIW, with the support of students and people of faith, have already reached agreements with McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway and other food distributers to improve wages and conditions for tomato pickers. 

“What really struck me about the presentation was how positive it was,” junior Michael Rogers said. “[Chavez] said he’s tired of people giving the farm workers pity. He wants people to actually take action which would make a bigger difference for them.” 

The CPJE is sponsoring several events over the next week as part of its Oscar Romero Lecture Series. A film screening of “The Wobblies,” a documentary that covers the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World during the early 1900s, will be shown tonight at 7 p.m. 

A forum will be held where members of the Villanova staff who work in positions that are often forgotten by the larger campus population will speak to the Villanova community about their typical day and the rewards and challenges of their jobs. 

Corey Dolgon, a sociology professor at Worchester State College, will give a “singing lecture” about the role that folksongs play in the U.S. labor movement at 7 p.m. on March 22.

The Oscar Romero series will end with a speech from Teresa Mambu-Rasch, a lawyer who works on employment and labor laws, on “Catholic Social Teaching at Work” at 3 p.m. on March 23. 

Past recipients of the Adela Dwyer-St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award include Jonathan Kozel, Judy Wicks and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the peace award.