Free-Market Labor Wins Wage-Boost Victory

Economic liberty shouldn't simply assume a pro-business stance, or discuss only the privileges government extends to unions.


Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Last week, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced an astonishing breakthrough in an ongoing campaign to win wage increases for 80,000-100,000 seasonal laborers picking tomatoes for Florida farms. Even more surprising, C.I.W. announced that the concessions came from Walmart, in a negotiated, government-free agreement with one of the more die-hard enemies of union contracts in corporate America.

Reported the Ft. Myers News-Press:

The retail giant has agreed to build the Fair Food Premium — the "penny-per-pound" — directly into the price it pays for Florida tomatoes and adhere to the program's standards on working conditions.

It joins the world's major fast-food companies, institutional food services and specialty grocers Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, who already participate in the program….

"We are truly pleased to welcome Walmart into the Fair Food Program. No other company has the market strength and consumer reach that Walmart has," said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW in a statement.

The Walmart agreement is the latest, the largest, and probably the most surprising win for C.I.W. in a decade-and-a-half campaign to increase wages and ease working conditions for Florida produce workers. For free marketeers the story is how the agreements were won: entirely without government certification, regulatory backing or legal protection. C.I.W.'s innovative use of protests, pressure campaigns and solidarity boycotts to win concessions from the world's biggest food corporations would be illegal had they stuck to bureaucratic templates for mainline, National Labor Relations Board-certified unions.

C.I.W. is a community-based worker organization, made up of tomato pickers in Immokalee, a migrant farmworker community in southwest Florida. Extremely poor, nearly all immigrants, many undocumented, and speaking four different languages, C.I.W.'s workers are exactly the sort of precarious manual laborers that AFL-line unions have written off as too transient or too divided to organize. Conventional unions have little incentive to try; from the Wagner Act on, U.S. labor law excludes farmworkers, domestic laborers, and independent contractors from legal bargaining-unit certification.

But despite that—or because of it—C.I.W.'s un-conventional labor activism has scored a series of major wins on wages and conditions since 2001. Founded in 1993, C.I.W. organized local strikes and protests in Immokalee, helping workers recover stolen wages and demanding increased piece rates. After some successes and a lot of stonewalling, they outlined a daring new strategy. Huge agribusiness employers don't care about public protest: they don't sell tomatoes to the public. But growers sold tomatoes to name-brand restaurants and grocery stores. Those businesses are highly sensitive to public opinion. So C.I.W. decided to convince corporate buyers to intervene with their suppliers.

In 2001, C.I.W. introduced a contractual pass-through program for companies to voluntarily and directly pay the cost of wage increases. They chose Taco Bell for their first target, and launched a bold, eye-catching campaign using sympathy protests, hunger strikes, pickets, and street theater, amplified by online activist networks and social media. Finally they worked with student groups in a hardball campaign to boot Taco Bell franchises from lucrative dining-service contracts on college campuses. Taco Bell finally conceded after four years of boycotts and 25 schools canceling contracts. C.I.W. then quickly mounted and won new campaigns targeting McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, and seven other restaurants, supermarkets, and dining-service companies.

The Fair Food Program has paid off with $11,000,000 in increased income for Florida tomato-pickers, after three decades of stagnant wages, and new policies to curb assault, sexual abuse and unsafe conditions in the fields. Walmart's agreement is remarkable as the first FFP agreement won without picketing, boycotting or pressure campaigns on the corporation – although C.I.W.'s highly visible ongoing pickets against Publix provided a PR incentive for grocery-store competitors to get out in front.

C.I.W.'s big wins make them one of the most successful examples of the emerging trend of "alt-labor" organizations. Groups like C.I.W., the Restaurant Opportunities Center, OUR Walmart, and the Domestic Workers United dispense with formal unionization, sidestepping both the privileges and constraints of NLRB labor law, and employ deliberately non-state mechanisms – workplace activism, outreach to consumers, shaming protests, and pressure campaigns—to mobilize workers, provide social support and pressure companies for better pay and conditions. Alt-labor approaches have proven especially successful for workers excluded from NLRB recognition, or in sectors (like low-wage service or restaurant work) where AFL-style collective bargaining has proven difficult or impossible.

Inspiring success stories grab attention in an otherwise dismal scene for organized labor. So should how they happened: through wildcat tactics that only alt-labor organizations like C.I.W. could pull off. They could mobilize consumer pressure and gain Fair Food premiums from corporate buyers only because they followed the supply chain instead of dealing with stonewalling direct employers. Protests and solidarity boycotts directed at corporate buyers compelled companies like Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Walmart to weigh in. Conventional NLRB union regulations would render their entire strategy illegal, as a "secondary action" prohibited under the Taft-Hartley Act.

All this offers the ironic spectacle of progressive commentators offering grudging admiration for labor activists "avoiding government and putting pressure on the corporations at the top of the nation's food chain," while conservative pro-business lobbies bemoan "loopholes" in New Deal labor regulations and urge Congress to intervene to smooth out labor disputes. For libertarians, it remind us that arguments for economic liberty shouldn't simply assume a pro-business stance, or discuss only the privileges government extends to unions.

We often neglect to notice how government privileges to one sort of union come with nets of regulatory strings. The original design and political purpose of the NLRB system was for "industrial peace" with the conservative, bureaucratic, and manageable "business unionism" of the AFL-CIO, at the expense of another, wilder strain based on creative protest and grassroots social activism. Alt-labor successes should remind us that freed-market processes don't just mean free rein for employers to do whatever they please; they also include unregulated, worker-driven competitive pressures, voluntary labor associations, social entrepreneurship, and freewheeling social activism, as part of hard-driving competitive bargaining. Alt-labor exemplifies the ability of market processes to weed out abusive practices and enable even the poorest workers to cooperate and bargain from a position of strength.

Alt-labor is commonly described in the context of "non-traditional labor groups," but it really belongs to a long tradition of alternative, counter-political labor movements. This tradition includes the UFW's secondary boycotts in the grape campaigns, or the anarchist-inspired I.W.W.'s minority unionism, sympathy strikes and boycotts, and enlisting public pressure through "open mouth sabotage." Employing libertarian methods of voluntary association, nonviolent activism, and social solidarity to back up hard bargaining, alt-labor hearkens back to an older strand of pre-New-Deal labor radicalism: a less legalistic, more anti-political, freer, and (therefore) more vigorous, less domesticated labor movement.

Free-marketeers should welcome the shift towards voluntary association and grassroots protest; as CIW organizer Gerardo Reyes Chávez says, the success of the Fair Food Program "shows the power of the market, and how it can improve the wages, improve the lives of workers."

Since last week's announcement, CIW continues to press on in its campaign to win a Fair Food agreement from the Publix supermarket chain. Meanwhile, Walmart may not be able to rest on its PR laurels for long, as the company now faces high-profile alt-labor efforts to organize associates on Walmart shopfloors.

NEXT: At Least 19 Dead in Twin Landslides Caused by Torrential Rain in Indonesia

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Oh look, I thought real labor unions went extinct in the United States.

    My worthless piece of crock AFL unions takes our dues and spends them in support of dipshits like Cuomo and towards policies that directly hurt the workforce. (And campaigning against the expressed interests of the membership when we rejected their previous contract)

    1. Most labor unions are starting to really hurt the workers especially in Las Vegas where people are now being forced to only work union houses if they are a union member.

  2. Students (and a fair number of faculty) at my university have been involved with CIW for several years now. It has been a long hard slog but they have been doing it the right way and it is starting to pay off. It’s kind of funny that I haven’t heard anything about this on campus yet.

    1. I am Spartacus

  3. That’s impossible. Tony has assured me that there are not private sector unions left and that even if there were, they can only get a fair shake when the government steps in to help.

  4. This is certainly impossible, for just last night I was informed that

    If the lives of migrant workers in the US, who essentially have no rights and whose working conditions are awful, are better than what they left behind, all that means is that they must have come from someplace pretty shitty indeed. One of those big government welfare states in Mexico, no doubt.

    The only pattern here is that more regulation seems to be better for workers.

    1. Who spouted off that piece of derp?

      1. Does it matter?

        But if it does, you really only need one guess, I’m sure.

        1. I like to watch out for the new trolls. I feel bad enough engaging Tony and shrike.

  5. They chose Taco Bell for their first target, and launched a bold, eye-catching campaign using sympathy protests, hunger strikes, pickets, and street theater, amplified by online activist networks and social media. Finally they worked with student groups in a hardball campaign to boot Taco Bell franchises from lucrative dining-service contracts on college campuses.

    If they put half that much effort into learning a few phrases of pidgin English and picking up a skill as rudimentary as mowing lawns they wouldn’t be making such shitty wages and working in such shitty conditions. Just sayin’. The whole “fuck you, get some skills” thing doesn’t just work for those lazy asshole ‘muricans.

    Also, I’d be interesting in hearing more about their tactics. Because if it includes things like loitering in the parking lots of grocery stores and harassing shoppers, or shouting all of the diners out of a fast food restaurant, like the previous “free market” labor demonstrations Reason defended, well, that’s just libertarian as fuuuuuuuck.

  6. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Walmart won’t be paying the entire $.01/pound increase or the rest of the cost increases. Their suppliers, the other hand, may not be too happy with the “deal” Walmart negotiated for them.

  7. Hmmm, sounds like another Liberaltarian, to me.

    Yep, straight from the horses mouth:

    I publish a lot of small-press anarchist and left-libertarian literature through the Distro of the Libertarian Left.

    I am sure that the threat of government coercion never occurred to Wal-Mart. Clearly a victory for the “Free Market”.

    1. You have no idea what you’re talking about, dude. Trust me.

      1. Trust me

        Because you can’t make a credible counter-argument? You can’t say why I don’t know what I am talking about because?

        Which part did I not understand? I don’t know if Johnson actually calls himself a “left-libertarian”, even though I read it on his blog, OR it really is an example of Libertarianism?

        I believe that I do know. Trust me.

  8. And every one of them a leftist who will vote for Hillary if they can.

    The US is at the limit of democracy: as the populace goes, so goes the country.

    Bye bye US. Patagonia, here we come.

  9. This will inevitably lead to the collapse of western society and, inevitably, genocide.

  10. my neighbor’s mother makes $89 hourly on the laptop . She has been out of a job for 8 months but last month her pay was $14653 just working on the laptop for a few hours. read this for more work detail go tech tab….


  11. Free marketeers should celebrate a union-like organization because their union activities are unregulated?

    It’s good they’re standing up to modern day “slavery”, but illegal aliens are exploited a reason. I doubt that they support efforts to tighten the borders to nip that kid of exploitation in the bud. It’s even less likely that they support real free market reforms like guest worker program or dismantling minimum wage.

    If you believe unions are bad news for workers, then a union for illegal aliens can’t be good for illegal aliens. Employers will lose incentives to hire illegal aliens if they face prospects of random strikes or government investigations prompted by this sort of de facto unions.

    1. That would be true in the case of unions exclusively of illegal aliens, but not in the case of general organiz’n of workers in a given sector. What, like, we can’t hire anybody because they might undertake wildcat actions?!

  12. Wal-Mart only did this a PR move

  13. I would like to thank Reason for publishing this excellent article, demonstrating with factual examples how individuals can organize to use voluntary means against the corporate oligarchs and plutocrats that would use their privileged position to exploit them. (Yes, oligopoly distorts market forces.)

    I find it sad that so many of the commentors have displayed a kneejerk anti-worker, pro-corporate employer attitude.

    This ought to be a perfect area for a libertarian/progressive alliance.

  14. uptil I saw the receipt of $6158, I have faith that…my… neighbour really taking home money part time on there computar.. there aunts neighbour has been doing this for only about 9 months and by now cleared the debts on their home and bourt a brand new GMC. read this post here W? o? r? k? s? 7? 7? .? ?? ?? ??

  15. Should also be noted that the traditional market anarchists, on the individualist/mutualist wing, fall right into this tradition of alt-labor.

  16. my neighbor recently bought a stunning gold Lexus GS 350 Sedan just by parttime work from a laptop… navigate to this site W? o? r? k? s? 7? 7? .? ?? ?? ??

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.