Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker center founded in November 1994 by tomato pickers from Florida to protest low pay. The group aggressively engages in secondary actions against buyers of Florida tomatoes who do not pay the group’s “penny-per-pound” to increase farmworker wages. The group has also entered into an arrangement with the Florida tomato-growers trade association (the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange), which represents their employers, to obtain higher wages.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which governs the overwhelming majority of labor-employment relations in the private sector, exempts farm laborers from collective bargaining regulations. Among the NLRA regulations enacted to keep commerce moving is a prohibition on “secondary boycotts.” Among the CIW’s most favored tactics is promoting boycotts of companies that buy tomatoes without participating in its Fair Food Program: The University of California, Davis’s Rural Migration News classified such actions as secondary boycotts that would likely be banned if CIW were subject to the NLRA (or California’s state agricultural labor relations law). If CIW were classified as an NLRA union and this interpretation were sustained, CIW’s widely reported protests against Taco Bell, Burger King, and Publix Supermarkets would have been illegal.

However, CIW has engaged in considerable negotiation with farm employers in Florida as well. As part of the organization’s “Fair Food Program,” CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange made agreements governing wide swaths of working conditions on tomato farms. By relating on behalf of farm laborers with groups of employers, CIW functions very similarly to a labor union, although it is exempt from NLRA rules on picketing and conduct.

According to a working paper by two attorneys in the Federalist Society legal journal Engage, CIW would almost certainly meet the “dealing with” criteria for a labor union if any one of its represented members were not an “agricultural laborer” under NLRA. CIW does not identify its members other than as “farmworkers” or report the number of dues payers it has.

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), which regulates union financial disclosures to the Department of Labor does not exempt agricultural labor organizations, like the United Farm Workers of California. The attorneys in Engage argued that CIW qualified as a labor organization under LMRDA. The Department of Labor has not required that CIW file reports.