History has proven time and again that leaps and bounds can be achieved when students and workers join forces in the name of social justice and human dignity. But no one has to tell that to the activists of the Student Farm Worker Alliance (SFA), an organization clearly in step with the long-established tradition of student-worker activism. The SFA describes itself on their Web site as “a network of students and youth activists who are dedicated to standing in solidarity with farmworkers as they struggle to gain dignity, fair wages and the right to dialogue with employers about working conditions in agriculture.”
The beginnings of the SFA can be traced back to a small group of Florida students concerned about the conditions of farmworkers in their state’s tomato fields. In February 2000, these students joined with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community organization, in a march to demand an end to what they consider the “sweatshops of the field.” Like most migrant agricultural laborers in the United States, the Immokalee tomato pickers are predominantly Mexican, Caribbean and Central American immigrants who travel the country from harvest to harvest.
The tomatoes of Immokalee are served up at fast food chains like Taco Bell through Six L’s Packaging Company, one of the largest tomato producers in the United States. Tomato pickers are paid around 40 cents for each 32 pound bucket they pick. Hardships faced by Immokalee workers include squalid working conditions, no benefits, no overtime pay, abusive bosses and no organizing rights, and in some extreme cases the farmworkers are subject to debt bondage, or what many call “modern-day slavery.”
Over the years the SFA’s statewide student movement has expanded into a nationwide network of decentralized student and youth activists who work in solidarity with farmworkers for better working conditions in the fields. The SFA is careful to “work alongside farmworkers in their struggle for change while not acting on their behalf,” so that the voice and vision of these workers is solely their own. Through education and advocacy the SFA leads different initiatives to raise awareness about farmworker issues by involvement with local farmworker communities and actions to support farmworker organizations throughout the country. Beginning in 2001, the CIW and the SFA spearheaded the ongoing Taco Bell boycott, which has been the SFA’s strongest unifying national campaign.
The student organization has played a central role in the boycott, particularly with their “Boot the Bell” campaign. Through the corporatization of U.S. college campuses, fast food chains like Taco Bell now provide on-campus meals for students. So the SFA lobbies university administrations to cut their contracts with the fast food chain. At the University of Chicago, student activists succeeded in getting the administration to give Taco Bell the boot. The SFA believes that “as consumers conscious of the exploitation…we can and must stand up to these corporations and make a change.” ¡Adelante!