By Maggie Martin
In March I went to Lakeland, Florida as a representative of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and participated in a "Fast for Fair Food" with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). I had never fasted in my life nor had I really been involved in an action as a supporter; all my organizing experience has been with IVAW. The nearly week-long fast and the experience of building community with people I had never met, but felt connected to because of our common cause of working for human rights and dignity for all people, was really powerful for me and I will never forget it.
The CIW, Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA), and other allies came together to hold Publix grocery store chain accountable for the unfair working conditions that exist in the Florida tomato fields that supply Publix. CIW has been asking for a penny more per pound and that growers adhere to a code of conduct regarding the treatment of workers.
While the grocery giant has said it is not responsible for worker abuse and poverty wages that persist in the tomato fields of Florida, we know that large buyers can make dramatic changes in conditions and wages for workers if they simply agree to buy from growers that are doing the right thing.
I felt proud to travel to Florida, join in the fast, and support such a worthy cause as a member of IVAW. There are many threads that tie veterans struggle together with the movement for farmworker justice and I want to highlight some of them. The CIW and the SFA have been an inspiration to our membership as we have built an organizing force in IVAW.
Back in 2010 SFA member/organizer Marina del Mar came to Chicago and taught, facilitated, and shared with IVAW members as we developed our first strategic campaign, Operation Recovery. She shared CIW and SFA's story of the long struggle building the power it took to take on a big corporation like Taco Bell and win! We also learned about the relationship-building and "spade work" it takes to bring people together to stand up for a common cause, and to stick with it until we see the change we are fighting for.
Another thing that we have learned from CIW and SFA is the relationship that exists between members of affected communities (for them farm workers, for us soldiers and veterans) and supporters (for them SFA for us Civilian Soldier Alliance-CSA). CIW and SFA have modeled the kind of work we want to be doing in IVAW, in which those affected by war and military service speak for themselves and are encouraged to take on leadership. Like SFA our allies in CSA support the campaign and the work that moves us forward but also have an eye on lifting up the voices of the affected community.
Finally the most important influence CIW and SFA have had on my work in IVAW is the continued focus on human dignity. As we have moved through the years and our work has taken on different forms, some things have become clear: war is dehumanizing, oppression is dehumanizing, and dehumanization of ourselves and others causes harm to all of society. The "Fast for Fair Food" was an expression of human dignity and the ties of solidarity built there will be felt long into the future.
Fasting has a history almost as long as mankind. Fasting has been used as a tool to raise social and political consciousness, to express protest, and to get closer to the spiritual world. For me the act of fasting was a chance to get in my body, get grounded in what I was standing for, and let go of the many distractions of day-to-day life. It was an offering of myself and at the same time a claiming of myself.
The power of the CIW community was invigorating. We fasters became more and more committed and bonded together as the week went on. Publix officials were on the defense, and support flowed in from all over the country. The resolve of the community is clear. Over forty CIW, SFA, and supporters fasted in Lakeland and many others fasted from afar or joined in throughout the week. Publix will have to come to account with the demand that they join the Fair Food Agreement, which 10 other national corporations including Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Trader Joe's have, thanks to the work of CIW and SFA.
The week passed by with music, prayer, and lots of sharing. The fast culminated on Saturday in a 3-mile march from a local Publix grocery to the Publix corporate headquarters where we had been all week. Special guests came out in support. Major Mexican music star Jose Jose, and members of the Kennedy family. Robert F. Kennedy's children Robert F., Jr. and Kerry F. Kennedy, and his widow, Ethel Kennedy all joined in the closing ceremony and the breaking of the bread, as Robert F. Kennedy himself had done exactly 44 years earlier with Farmworker rights leader Cesar Chavez.
Publix has yet to respond but CIW supporters faced Publix headquarters with a crowd of nearly 1000 chanting, "We'll be back." I know this fight is not over and my experience fasting for six days with CIW has given me a renewed commitment to their cause, energy to bring back to my work with IVAW, and knowledge to see how our humanity is tied with so many others so that we can build solidarity in all of our work for justice.
Maggie Martin served as a Sergeant in the US Army Signal Corps; she served two tours in Iraq. Maggie is currently a field organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War and sits on the Advisory Board of Warrior Writers. Maggie has a BA in English Communications and is a Graduate Student, studying Social Justice at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michigan.