2016 Award Leadership Honorees: Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez

Greg Asbed and Lucas Benitez
Co-Founders, Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Lucas Benitez had his first brush with physical abuse as a teenager, while he was toiling in the sweltering tomato fields of Florida’s Gulf Coast. “We were putting wooden stakes in the soil, and I was going really fast, so I took a break for a couple of minutes,” he says. Then he was confronted by a crew leader twice his size, who threatened to beat him for taking an unscheduled breather. “As workers, we came from Mexico expecting to do really hard work,” Benitez says. “But we didn’t expect this.” It was the first episode in what became an epidemic of harassment of Benitez and his fellow laborers. 

The dismal situation led to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which Benitez cofounded with Greg Asbed, a lawyer with Florida Rural Legal Services, in 1993. At the group’s first meetings, held in local Catholic churches, the duo drafted a strategy for restoring human dignity and improving working conditions for farm workers across Florida, where nearly 90 percent of the country’s winter tomatoes are grown. “Our idea was that once you sparked critical thinking in a community, it could take off from there,” says Asbed.

Since then, the Coalition has welcomed about 4,500 members in Florida, while the organization’s Fair Food Program, which partners with major retailers and restaurant chains like Walmart, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Trader Joe’s, has established a set of human rights standards for farm workers in the state. Suppliers who comply with the program have agreed to purchase tomatoes exclusively from growers who meet these standards, which include higher wages, mandatory rest breaks, and frequent assessments of field conditions by laborers. The Coalition’s innovative worker-driven approach has received the Clinton Global Initiative’s Global Citizen Award and the Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

“I knew much of the Coalition’s story secondhand, but hearing it from workers and organizers gave me as inspiring a couple of days as I’ve ever spent,” says journalist, author, and 2014 Leadership Award recipient Mark Bittman, who has toured Immokalee’s tomato fields. “The Coalition continues to be on the leading edge of labor organizing around food and does some of the most important work people who care about food and other people can be doing.”

The campaign is far from over for Asbed, who has set his sights on national expansion. “It’s important that the [Fair Food Program] model be held up as a gold standard,” he says. “Though it hasn’t been able to cover the entire field yet, as long as it’s recognized as being the remedy, the necessary resources will come.”

For now, Benitez sees hope in the radical attitude shifts on Florida farms. “For years, supervisors would ask crew leaders for ‘100 hands for tomorrow,’” he recalls. “We were treated like machines. Now I hear crew leaders say, ‘I need 100 employees,’ so, in that way, the farm workers win.”