In the fall of 2017, Leonel Perez and I prepared ourselves and our respective communities for the impending Category 5 Hurricane Irma that was barreling toward Florida. As I bunkered down with my college classmates in Gainesville, Leo helped evacuate farmworkers living in mobile homes in Immokalee—the tomato capital of the United States. Despite living only a few hours away from each other, our lives looked very different. Leo was an immigrant farmworker from Guatemala; and I was a twenty-something college student from South Florida. However, for a brief moment, as Hurricane Irma brought life to a screeching halt across the state, our lives looked eerily similar. Both of us were waiting out the ravaging rains, holding our loved ones close, and hoping to be spared from the worst of the storm’s deadly wake.
The climate crisis has a weird way of doing that: of providing common cause and forming unlikely alliances, of stripping away differences in light of our collective vulnerability to the natural world. Thankfully, in order to confront the climate crisis and the struggle for farmworkers’ rights, these unlikely alliances—among farmworkers and college students, policymakers and movement-builders—are exactly what we need to establish long-term systemic change.
The climate crisis has a weird way of doing that: of providing common cause and forming unlikely alliances, of stripping away differences in light of our collective vulnerability to the natural world.
This is why I spent some of my college days organizing alongside the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their Boycott Wendy’s campaign at the University of Florida. And it’s why I will be marching alongside Leonel and hundreds of other farmworkers and consumers as they rally in New York City later this month, demanding that Wendy’s sign on to the Fair Food Program. The program was created in response to the prevalence of farmworkers experiencing wage theft, extreme working conditions, sexual harassment, and, in some cases, outright enslavement while working in the fields. The program has proved to be extremely effective at ending many of these long-standing human rights violations through worker-led monitoring and enforcement. Most of the largest fast-food companies, including McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Burger King, have signed on. Wendy’s ought to be next.
I’ll show up to this fight as I am: a queer, Latinx climate activist fighting for her home—a coastal, Floridian community already grappling with the impacts of the climate crisis. Leo and his colleagues will show up as they are: many of them indigenous, all of them farmworkers fighting for dignity and a fair wage. Our collective fates are inextricably bound.
It’s clear that the struggle for climate justice and farmworker justice are not separated, but deeply intertwined. As we speak, climate-fueled droughts are wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of rural agricultural communities all across Central and South America, including the one Leo is from. When I talked with Leo earlier this month, he told me that climate change is forcing agricultural workers to make hard decisions about how to survive. These decisions often include immigrating to a new country.
We can expect to see more of this climate-fueled immigration in the coming decades, with experts predicting that by 2050, 143 million people could be living as climate migrants. Some of these displaced people will choose to move to the United States, the supposed land of promise and opportunity. And, as the farmworkers in Immokalee so clearly show, when immigrants arrive to the United States, they show up ready to work. Although farmworkers in the United States today are a mix of U.S. born and immigrants, 73 percent were born outside of the country. All, however, face similar exploitation.
Despite their vast contributions to society, the conditions that farmworkers are subject to in the United States are often horrific, and those conditions are only exacerbated by the climate crisis. Beyond having to deal with a militarized immigration enforcement agency and exploitative employers, farmworkers are subject to unstable housing and employment. Indeed, many farmworkers in Immokalee live in mobile homes that are deeply vulnerable to storms and flooding. These same farmworkers spend their days working in the fields of agricultural operations whose productivity relies entirely on a stable and reliable climate. Not to mention that working in the fields puts them on the frontlines of experiencing the impacts of extreme heat events.
Their struggle also offers us a glimpse into what happens when workers choose to stand up for themselves and each other.
The struggle of farmworkers in Immokalee offers a glimpse into our potential cataclysmic future: Working class people, and mostly people of color, displaced by a climate crisis they did not cause and, as a result, forced to migrate for survival, only to encounter anti-immigrant rhetoric and exploitative employers. But, their struggle also offers us a glimpse into what happens when workers choose to stand up for themselves and each other. They show us the importance of creating an intersectional progressive movement that stands for climate justice and workers’ rights in their supply chain. Thankfully, workers, young people, and their allies are rising up to oppose the exploitation of people and planet.