The Precariat in the Fields: Food Chains (2014)

Every generation, it seems, must revisit the fields where migrant labor tolls to keep fresh strawberries and tomatoes on our tables. Edward R. Murrow is usually credited with the first expose of the “forgotten people,” as Murrow referred to them in his legendary television documentary in 1960, The Harvest of Shame. Murrow begins with footage of the almost exclusively black field workers boarding trucks to take them to the tomato fields in Immokalee, Florida. He quotes one farm owner: “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.”


In our generation this same task falls to director Sanjay Rawal whose 2014 documentary Food Chains begins, like Murrow, in Immokalee, following workers almost exclusively Latino on the busses to take them to the tomato fields, arriving for shape-up at 8 AM and returning home usually about 8 PM, having earned only $42. One of the workers says: “we live like animals in cramped houses,” often packing fifteen to sixteen people in a trailer during picking season.


But Rawal has a new topic besides the grim recitation of facts and expression of outrage characteristic of Murrow. The workers have formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who struggle on a number of fronts to double the income of the tomato pickers by asking the big three consumers—fast food restaurant, food services, and supermarkets to simply double the single penny earned for every tomato picked. This will have the effect, of course, of doubling the wages of the workers.


The film traces informational leafleting, marches, pickets, and even a major hunger strike as the strategic efforts of the CIW to move public opinion and embarrass the big three food consumers. In the end only company, the food chain Publix, refuses to support what came to be called the agreement called the Fair Food Program. Publix, the largest food chain and actually one of the richest corporations in any business, of course refuses to comment on camera.


Rawal’s film uses historical footage with great skill and effect. As I have mentioned, he uses some of the shots from The Harvest of Shame, but he also includes telling footage from Ethel and Bobby Kennedy’s visits to Cesar Chavez’s own hunger strike in 1968. Rawal films Ethel Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Junior as they visit the hunger strike of the CIW in 2013.


By my count Murrow’s film engendered at least three major broadcast TV specials on migrant workers within ten years of his CBS Reports film. But it took another thirty years when three more documentaries re-visited Murrow’s films and reported disappointedly , as in New Harvest, Old Shame (Frontline, 1990) “little has changed” for the now Latino migrant workers who travel from Florida to New Jersey for their picking opportunities.


So Rawal might not have the last word on the trials and tribulations of the migrant workers he films so respectfully, but it is at the very least a compelling and convincing word at this point, fifty-five years after his documentary mentor, Edward R. Murrow, filmed the migrant workers in the same town.


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