Many of us would like to believe that the power to change the world lies in the hands of consumers—but does it actually?
That’s a question I posed recently to Greg Asbed, a recent recipient of the highly coveted MacArthur Fellowship—the so-called “Genius Grant”—which awards $625,000, no-strings-attached, to individuals with outstanding talent “as an investment in their potential.”
Asbed has dedicated the last few decades of his life to transforming an oft-neglected sector of the food industry: labor. More specifically, his work has centered on the plight of farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., where 90 percent of the United States’ winter tomatoes are picked and whose farms supply countless fast food enterprises.
The U.S. doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to labor in its agricultural industry, which was founded from the very beginning on the backs of slaves. That tradition has continued well into the 20th and 21st centuries; a fact which was made apparent to the American public in the 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.” In it, the desolate communities responsible for feeding the “best fed nation in the world” are shown—the farm laborers and migrant workers in Immokalee, whose working and living conditions lay in stark contrast to the abundance that America is so well known for.
By the nineties, some things had changed, most notably a racial shift, from poor blacks and whites, to laborers from Mexico making up 74% of the workforce. But despite increased awareness about the situation amongst consumers, the conditions of workers remained largely the same.
In 1991, Asbed and his wife, Laura Germino, had been working with farm laborers in Pennsylvania and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They learned that many of those they spoke with called Immokalee home for nine months of the year. It was there they made the realization, that if a community-driven approach to social change for farm labor was going to have a chance anywhere, it would be would be in Florida. They packed their bags and made the move.
Soon thereafter, they began meeting with local workers in Immokalee. What started as a small group of individuals meeting weekly in a room borrowed from a local church, later became what is now called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—a powerful example of what a well-organized community is capable of.
Since its founding in 1993, CIW has pioneered everything from anti-slavery campaigns—which have liberated over 1,200 workers forced into modern slavery since the early nineties— to “Know Your Rights” programs for workers—which have provided over 150,000 workers access to informational brochures and pamphlets since 2011. One pamphlet, for example, explains to workers the guidelines to justly kept hours: “Only your lunch break is deducted… If the truck is late and you have to wait for it, you’re on the clock. If it rains and you have to stop, but you do not go back home, you’re on the clock.” (“A radical concept, right?” Asbed says sarcastically with a laugh.)
In 2001, CIW made its biggest national break when it launched an awareness campaign targeting Taco Bell’s unethically sourced food, which caught on with students at universities. Four years of boycotts resulted in a total of 20 Taco Bells shutting down across the U.S. By 2005, the fast food giant finally conceded to purchase its tomatoes from farms complying with Fair Food standards.
Since then, 14 total corporations, including Walmart, McDonald’s, and Burger King, have joined suit in signing up for what is now called the Fair Food Program (FFP), launched in 2011 across the 30,000-acre Florida tomato industry. The program, born out of CIW’s groundwork, is made possible through the existence of a Fair Foods Standards Council, which performs regular audits to ensure basic systems are in place, like time clocks and services where workers can lodge complaints without fear of retribution. According to their statistics, over 1,800 complaints have been resolved since 2011.
Today, CIW has spurred a large-scale movement that far exceeds the bounds of its humble South Florida origins. “What makes this so strong is that it is the humans whose rights are in questions themselves that are at front of the process,” says Asbed, who considers CIW and all its offshoots “the most grass roots movement, organization, and phenomenon that you can possibly imagine.”
CIW’s approach is singularly unique in the fight for workers’ rights, Asbed explained to me in a recent interview, because in its model, it takes into account the very delicate dance between consumer and corporation, as both are extremely powerful actors in the tangled web of American consumer capitalism. While corporations have enormous purchasing power—enough to brutally drive wages down to next to nothing—consumers, he believes, ultimately have the final say in determining the how that power is allocated. It’s just that we rarely take advantage of it.
“What people forget is that the market doesn’t stop at the level of the corporations, it stops at us. We’re the ultimate buyers, so just as corporations can almost dictate to their suppliers everything they want in the product that they’re buying, and also the price, consumers can do the same thing. Ultimately, we are at the top of this hierarchical system of power that is the food market,” Asbed noted.
There is a recurring theme throughout our conversation, which revolves around a philosophical question of how accountability shifts as individuals come together in groups. When discussing the economic forces at play in a market, we often use terms like “workers,” “consumers,” and “corporations” on equal footing. But while both workers and consumers signify flatly dispersed communities of individuals operating at a human level, corporations are disaffected hierarchies, from whom we cannot expect an inherent sense of moral obligation.
Asbed says that by developing a grassroots model of Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR)—the labor-friendly counterpart to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)—CIW has been able to successfully build a better bridge of communication between consumers and the workers who are responsible for the food that sustains them; a system of communication which bypasses corporations altogether, and in doing so, effectively holds them accountable.
“CSR arose in response to human rights violations. It arose in response to consumers, in the information age, becoming more aware of the conditions in the supply chains,” Asbed explains. “But the problem is that it was born in response to reputational damage, the harm that was done to a corporation’s brand. It wasn’t born to fix human rights violations, it was born to fix public relations problems, and so it never fixed the human rights violations, because that wasn’t its intent in the first place.”
Since CIW began its work in Immokalee 25 years ago, the region has made a remarkable transformation: from being the “ground zero for modern-day slavery” to “the most progressive workplace in U.S. agriculture today,” says Asbed, who has received awards and commendations from White House and the UN, lending credence to his claims. It’s perhaps the most successful labor rights campaign in modern history.
Asbed, who is a first-generation Armenian-American, says his commitment to the idea of universal human rights has been “forged in the crucible of genocide.” His grandmother, he told the New York Times in an interview, was bought and sold twice before the age of 13, “once to the Kurds, then by the Kurds to an Armenian family, which was my grandfather’s family.”
Born into such poverty that he never even knew his real age, Asbed’s father, né Sarkis Nalbandian, benefited greatly from the kind of community organizing that his son today works so hard to foster amongst workers in the U.S.
Following the devastation of the Armenian Genocide, the diaspora, made up largely of survivors, created an intricate network of systems that would allow community members to stay connected and help each other. This included the creation of communication platforms—like this newspaper, for example*—as well as reeducation efforts, like the scholarship funds Asbed’s father benefited from in his youth.
“Education, as you know, in the Armenian community, is hugely important,” he explained, “so one of the things that the diaspora did following the genocide was organize educational institutions and opportunities for poor kids, who couldn’t afford to do it. So he had his education paid for, as long as he did well, from I think age eight on.”
“He was the real genius,” jokes Asbed, referencing his recent award. Nalbandian attended the famous, now-defunct Melkonian Institute in Cyprus before venturing to Cairo to study at the American University, and then Denmark, where he worked with physicist Neils Bohr for a year. In 1952, he came to the U.S. to finish his education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Upon arrival, he changed his name to Norig Asbed. “He had this really romantic idea about coming over here,” explains Asbed of the decision. “He dreamt of a new life.” Nor in Armenian means new, and asbed, warrior or knight.
But Nalbandian’s early memories of poverty remained with him all his life, and Asbed recalls his father would often refer to himself as a peasant. “I grew up in the suburbs outside D.C., where people didn’t use words like ‘peasant’ and I would always think, ‘Wow, that’s something. That’s my dad.’”
While the word ‘peasant’ comes with a lot of baggage in English, as the unpleasantries of extreme poverty aren’t something many suburban Americans like to spend too much ruminating about, in many minority communities, it’s more of a reality to be dealt with. Asbed would come to learn this later in life, after spending three years living and working in Haiti—a country of people “who called themselves ‘peasants,’ too.”
“I learned to grow food and learned to be in a community where everyone is so poor that the only way to get by is by working together. After Haiti, I finally felt like I had insight into what he was talking about when he called himself a ‘peasant’ that I never had before and it was beautiful.” Norig Asbed, who passed away in 2015, remained active in the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) for the rest of his life.
In a way that I don’t even know if he’d recognize, he helped instill in me the sense that communities are responsible for all their members and that if we act together, we can change people’s lives for the much better.”
* Editor’s Note: Founded in 1899, the Hairenik Daily (now the Hairenik Weekly, the Armenian Weekly’s Armenian-language sister publication), was a strong example of the Armenian Diaspora’s early dedication to maintaining a well-organized and informed community. During and following the Armenian Genocide, the Hairenik Weekly even functioned as a bulletin board for genocide survivors seeking out lost loved ones. We were reminded of the sobering role this newspaper once played once more in 2015, when a 109-year-old genocide survivor requested a notice be published in our pages, searching for her older brother whom she had lost amid the violence, as detailed in this editorial.