Lucas Benitez

Lucas Benitez was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and moved to Immokalee, Florida, at the age of 16 to work in the tomato fields. The wages were barely enough to live on, and workers faced a climate of intimidation, fear, and violence. The grueling conditions angered him, and he had to act. Benitez got together with other workers to discuss the exploitation and eventually helped found the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Instead of calling himself an organizer, Benitez considers himself an animator—someone who activates the community to fight together and share the struggle.

Since it was founded in 1993, CIW has used a range of strategies to raise awareness about farmworkers’ conditions and to advocate for their basic human rights. To build solidarity, the group created their own low-power radio station, Radio Conciencia, as well as a co-op to help workers purchase food and other necessities at fair prices. In 2001, CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food, which brought the fight for fair wages and better working conditions directly to the big corporations that depend on the food these farmworkers help produce.

CIW achieved its first major victory in 2005 when Taco Bell agreed to improve wages and working conditions in response to a national consumer boycott. Following Taco Bell’s example, many other giant retail food chains and supermarkets, including Burger King, Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald’s, Subway, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods have joined in. They have signed binding agreements that require growers to pass along an extra penny to workers per pound of product sold. This action raised the average annual farmworker wage from $10,000 to $17,000.

Today, Benitez’s goal is to make “the Florida tomato industry a model of social accountability.” And he is doing just that. Through its Fair Food campaign, CIW has convinced major food corporations to purchase tomatoes only from participating growers—those who have signed a code of conduct agreeing to regular audits of workplace practices, including fair pay, sexual harassment protections, and other fair labor practices. And CIW is committed to educating farmworkers so that they understand that these are their rights.

Lucas Benitez has risen above the harshest conditions to create an alliance of workers and consumers who are changing the narrative. He is transforming the lives of some of the worst-paid people in America by bringing long-deserved dignity to their work.