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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Defending The Florida Tomato Industry

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 19, 2007

Our piece, Florida Tomato Growers Reject Penny-A-Pound Initiative At The Industry’s Peril, raised quite a controversy and we’ll be dealing with the issue in many pieces in the weeks and months ahead.

Today we have received an important letter from an important man:

I read your Perishable Pundit and your comments about the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and their battle with the Coalition of Immokalee Growers (CIW). Mr. Prevor, this is not the first time you have attacked the Florida growers nor the first time you and I have locked horns. You write well, but your research is poor and your writing is mostly fiction.

Years ago after the NAFTA debate, you took up for Jeff Gargiulo for siding with the government rather than the growers. In the end, 400 growers were put out of business by NAFTA and a $2.5 million antidumping lawsuit had to be filed to get any relief.

During the Country-of-Origin debate, you sided with the retailers and helped them conduct a campaign of intimidation against the growers and other trade associations to agree to a voluntary program for COOL. Imagine a voluntary anything. It would be like having a voluntary speed limit on the nation’s highways.

Well Mr. Prevor, I not only passed country of origin in 2002 but again passed it in the 2007 Farm Bill. How about that, Mr. Prevor.

Now you praise as brilliant the moves of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Let me tell you a little about the CIW. They have been around for over 10 years. In 1998, a couple of days after the election of Jeb Bush’s first term, he called me and asked me to go to Immokalee and help farm workers get a piece-rate increase. As an ally and long time friend of the Governor-elect, I went to Immokalee and met with all the growers I could find.

Before the day was out, all growers except for one large grower had agreed to raise the piece rate by 5 cents per bucket. At that time that amounted to 13% wage increase. For the rest of Mr. Bush’s term (8 years), we went on to build some $160 million in affordable housing for farm workers in Florida, we passed legislation to inform farm workers about pesticides in the fields and moneys for migrant children were provided. Gov Bush and Mrs. Bush gave out hundreds of thousands of dollars in Christmas gifts to farm worker children with donations from the growers. The CIW has never acknowledged or thanked Governor Bush for his efforts.

Back when I first reported the agreement to Governor-elect Bush, he was happy, I was happy, the growers were happy to be able to help the new young elected Governor. But that did not last. Later that week, the CIW starting attacking me, the Governor-elect and more vigorously the growers, the very same growers who would pay millions for the additional 5 cents per bucket. The CIW was mad because we did not include them in the negotiations. It was at that time I began suspecting that these folks wanted to position themselves into a labor union.

Today, 10 years later after watching their scheme for a penny-per-pound extortion against the fast food chains, I am convinced they want to start a labor union. The last thing the Florida Agricultural Industry needs.

J. Luis Rodriguez
CEO
Trans Tech AG Corp.
Monticello, Florida

Mr. Rodriguez is a lobbyist and an important Republican operative, a long-time friend of the Bush family and a past president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. We respect his opinion and run his letter in full.

Yet we confess that many years of doing this has taught us that people who are close to issues we write about — and Mr. Rodriguez is, as his letter makes clear, very close to this issue — often assume our pieces are about the specific battles they are fighting as opposed to what we actually are writing about.

Note that in a letter which is purportedly about a piece we wrote, Mr. Rodriguez elects not to quote even one single word we wrote. Instead we get broad-brush accusations that our research is poor and we write mostly fiction… unsupported accusations that make it more difficult for the trade to discuss important issues in a civil manner.

That Mr. Rodriguez does not quote the article we wrote is not an accident. It is because our piece was not about the battle between Florida’s tomato farmers and CIW — in fact, CIW is never mentioned, even once, in the piece.

The piece was actually about two things:

1) How the rejection of penny-a-pound schemes would play on the national scene in the context of the national debate over immigration reform.

2) How the rejection of penny-a-pound schemes will play in an environment of increased emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility by major buyers, such as Tesco, and the larger media, regulatory and legislative community.

At no point in the piece did we express any position on the long-running battle between the Florida tomato industry and CIW. This is not because we don’t have a position; we certainly do. It is just that this is not what we were writing about on this particular day.

We think during the 23 years we have been writing publicly on produce industry issues, we have established a pretty consistent capitalist orientation. Our position is that Florida tomato farmers, as with all farmers, as with all employers, should pay whatever legal wage they want to pay, and if workers don’t like that wage, they shouldn’t work for those employers.

People know what is best for them and if they come from another country or travel across this country to pick tomatoes, it is because that is the best opportunity the world is giving them.

This capitalist orientation has not always been welcomed by the Florida tomato industry. We got plenty of heat when we stood up here, here and here for the right of the Procacci family to market their UglyRipe tomatoes.

The fact that we may believe in capitalism does not blind us to what others believe and, sometimes, one of the functions of the Pundit is to discuss broader issues. When we wrote about Kathie Lee Gifford’s “Sweatshop” problems, we were not necessarily agreeing with the critics of Kathie Lee Gifford:

If you think about all the problems Kathie Lee Gifford had because her clothes were being produced in “sweatshops” and ask how we will stack up when scrutiny starts to be paid to working conditions and compensation both of migrant workers in the US and field workers in developing countries, the challenge ahead is obvious.

In fact if you wanted our actual assessment, it is that banning “sweatshops” in third-world countries will raise costs and make it uneconomical to produce in the poorest countries. Producers will make clothes in more developed countries where it is easier and workers are more productive. This will cause the workers in the poorest countries to lose jobs and become poorer still.

Though we don’t agree with this commonplace assessment of sweatshops, we are not oblivious to the way many people, including many people of great influence, perceive the issue. So when we warn that Kathie Lee Gifford got in trouble over labor standards and write a piece warning the industry of its vulnerability on this issue, we are doing our job serving as an early warning system — not endorsing this outcome.

If you read Mr. Rodriguez’s letter, it is hard to imagine that he is writing about a piece filled with thoughts such as this:

We have no delusions that this is a morally easy issue. If we raise wages, it could lead to the American industry not being competitive with third-world suppliers. It is far from clear that workers would be better off staying in their home countries rather than coming to the U.S., whatever the wage.

Does that read like a paragraph of fiction as Mr. Rodriguez claims? Or does it read as an honest attempt to wrestle with very difficult issues?

Mr. Rodriguez makes four specific points in his letter:

1) Years ago after the NAFTA debate, you took up for Jeff Gargiulo for siding with the government rather than the growers. In the end, 400 growers were put out of business by NAFTA and a $2.5 million antidumping lawsuit had to be filed to get any relief.

Yes, we supported NAFTA as you can see in our column here. Why Mr. Rodriguez picks out Jeff Gargiulo as the one we “took up for” is unclear. Maybe we “took up for” the Washington Apple Commission or the Northwest Pear Bureau or the California Table Grape Commission or any one of countless produce industry organizations that support NAFTA.

For that matter, maybe we didn’t take up for anyone, but simply, as an American, made the decision that this was best for the country.

Mr. Rodriguez is an advocate paid to promote the interests of Florida agriculture. He works for the Florida tomato growers. To him, the question of NAFTA could be viewed through the sole prism of whether it is a good deal for Florida tomato farmers. As he points out, it was not, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad deal for America.

Our job here at the Pundit is much broader. We are deeply committed to the industry and to our country — and sometimes that broader agenda will conflict with what is best for individual commodities.

Mr. Rodriguez is in the enviable position of simply having to support what is good for his clients. We, on the other hand, have to actually figure out how to balance many conflicting interests to find out what is best for the industry, the country and the world.

2) During the Country-of-Origin debate, you sided with the retailers and helped them conduct a campaign of intimidation against the growers and other trade associations to agree to a voluntary program for COOL. Imagine a voluntary anything. It would be like having a voluntary speed limit on the nation’s highways.

Well Mr. Prevor, I not only passed country of origin in 2002 but again passed it in the 2007 Farm Bill. How about that, Mr. Prevor.

Yes, we opposed mandatory country-of-origin labeling. The reason: It will add costs to the system and produce few, if any, benefits for growers. At the time of the debate, we wrote a cover story in our sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, on the issue, which you can read here. Just recently, we discussed the issue in an exchange with Bryan Silbermann, President of PMA, and you can read that exchange here.

We have had country-of-origin labeling on seafood for several years now, and any impact it has had on consumer purchasing behavior is too infinitesimal to be observed. We are convinced that the effect will be similar on produce.

As far as the bill getting passed at Mr. Rodriguez’s behest — we presume that the interest of Mr. Rodriguez is not simply passing laws but delivering some real benefit to the industry. It does appear as if country-of-origin labeling will finally come into effect, so we will see what happens in the end.

There is no particular reason to believe it will help the farmers of America. We hope we are wrong and it really helps the growers. If we are wrong, we will certainly be the first to write about it. Let us hope that Mr. Rodriguez will be out there honestly acknowledging that the whole thing was a waste of time and money if it turns out that way.

3) Now you praise as brilliant the moves of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Actually, what we said was this:

Eventually, though, the advocates for the migrant workers hit upon a strategy more likely to have success. Instead of pressuring anonymous farmers, they would attempt to pressure foodservice operators.

It was a brilliant strategy on two accounts:

First, these consumer brand names ran real reputational risk in being tarred as responsible for low wages and poor working conditions. As such, they were susceptible to public relations campaigns singling them out as villains. Boycotts by “consumers of conscience” could really hurt these businesses — in a way they could not hurt any anonymous tomato farmer — and therefore created a real incentive for these foodservice operators to head off boycotts and protests.

Second, focusing on the foodservice operators accurately reflected the economics of the situation. Tomato farming is not so wildly profitable that individual tomato farmers could unilaterally decide to dramatically increase their labor costs. On the other hand, the cost of tomatoes in most foodservice applications — say a slice of tomato on a hamburger — is sufficiently small as a percentage of total ingredient costs or total item price that it is feasible for foodservice operators to contemplate an increase in tomato costs. In addition, foodservice operators have greater control over menu prices, and thus greater ability to pass costs onto consumers than do farmers selling a commodity.

The strategy bore fruit when Yum! Brands — which owns KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and other fast food restaurants — decided to participate in a so-called “penny-a-pound” scheme by which companies would agree to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes and the penny would be paid directly to workers.

Hitler’s decision to invade Poland with a blitzkrieg technique was a brilliant strategy; his plan to go around the Maginot Line rather than face it directly was a brilliant strategy; his decision to invade Russia was a colossal blunder. These words lack moral content and cannot be misconstrued to think the writer of them is pro-Hitler or anti-Hitler.

Anyone who is honest will acknowledge that the decision to pressure well-known companies with well-known consumer brands rather than obscure tomato farmers was a “brilliant strategy.” That doesn’t make it right, that doesn’t mean we applaud the effort; it just means that we acknowledge that all kinds of people — good, evil and ambivalent — can have a brilliant strategy or commit a colossal blunder.

4) I am convinced they want to start a labor union. The last thing the Florida Agricultural Industry needs.

Funny thing is that several growers have told us that they wish CIW would form a union. Then their behavior would fall under the National Labor Relations Board and we could have a legitimate vote at each operation to see if the laborers have any interest in these people. Remember the National Labor Relations Act generally prohibits secondary boycotts — the exact behavior of CIW that so infuriates the industry.

^

Mr. Rodriguez is clearly a knowledgeable man. He has been close to these issues and we appreciate him sharing his knowledge with the trade.

The Pundit goes way back with the Florida tomato farmers. We cut our eye teeth in the business buying trailers of tomatoes for weekly shipment to Puerto Rico and then selling them out of San Juan.

We have no desire to see the growers of Florida tomatoes do anything but succeed, and we recognize all the obvious facts and points, such as these:

  • It makes no sense to demand a penny-a-pound on Florida and only Florida tomatoes. What about Mexican fruit? It is manifestly unfair.
  • McDonald’s, Yum! Brands, etc., have no interest in giving a penny-a-pound to the farm workers. They act only under enormous pressure, including fear of boycotts and reputational damage. So when Florida’s tomato farmers oppose the penny-a-pound deal, they are acting in the interest of their customers.
  • All foodservice operators and supermarket banners are deeply concerned that schemes such as penny-a-pound will force them into a compromising legal position as a “co-employer” and create enormous liabilities for them.

Yet none of this changes our main point. As we wrote in the piece:

The issue for the Florida tomato industry is that in the new world of emphasis on corporate social responsibility, the industry would do better to position itself as a leader rather than a retrograde industry.

Does anyone really disagree with that sentiment?

We thank Mr. Rodriguez for giving us an opportunity to clarify what we were talking about. We will certainly be running many pieces in the near future to explore this issue in far greater depth. We always stand for the industry and our country, but the interests of both are often not so simply stated.

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