Presente! A Radio Station Barn Raising

A low-power radio station becomes a high-powered tool for farmworkers struggling in America’s tomato fields for dignity and against poverty and modern-day slavery
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Florida farmworkers celebrate the opening of Radio Consciencia. Photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou/

In tiny crowded trailers on the edges of fields, in lonely bars and shops selling plantains and phone cards, over car radios and cheap receivers, a crowd of voices spilled through the warm tropical air of rural southwest Florida. “Coalition? Presente! Coalition? Presente! Coalition? Presente!” The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was presente—definitely here.

For a minute, you could hear dead air­—then the rustling of people moving behind the microphone. A new deejay's voice came on—a woman who apologized, in Spanish, for the rough transition. But, as she introduced a rousing Mexican folk song in her strong voice, the crowd witnessing the birth of Radio Consciencia cheered. Coalition member after Coalition member took a turn at the microphone, greeting fellow workers all across the city in Spanish and a variety of indigenous Mexican and Guatemalan languages. This was the first broadcast of a new low-power radio station, a tool that the Coalition would use to fight for workers' rights in the tomato fields of southwest Florida and around the world.

The CIW began in 1993 as a small group of farmworkers who met weekly in a local church to discuss how to improve their community and their lives. The CIW's members, who today number about 2,500, spread throughout Florida, are largely Latinos, Haitians, and Mayan Indians. Most speak little or no English. They are isolated from friends and family. Most U.S. labor laws—including the 40-hour work week, the right to collectively organize, child labor protection, and unemployment insurance—don't apply to them, and even when they do, any worker who complains risks deportation.

As Luisa Fernandez, one Coalition member, explained to an Oxfam investigator, the tomato farmers even control the farmworkers' daily movements: “It is compulsory. Once you are in the field, you can't get back to your house. The boss is the one who takes you to the field and brings you back home.”

They live eight, 10, 12 to a trailer, and pay exorbitant rent for the homes they use only when they are not picking tomatoes, from four in the morning until dark falls again. The farmworkers are paid 45 cents for each bucket of tomatoes they pick, averaging about $50 for their dawn-to-dusk labor—about the same as they made in 1980. It is thanks to the CIW that tomato pickers earn that much; before the CIW began organizing, wages had fallen even lower.

As they fight for un centavo más—one penny more per bucket of tomatoes they pick—the Coalition counts the voices of the workers themselves as the most effective tools.

“When I first arrived, I was brought to South Carolina, where I was told I'd work in the fields picking cucumbers. What they didn't tell me was that I had just consented, without knowing, to being a prisoner and slave. I was yelled at daily, wasn't allowed to leave the premises and had guns pointed at me and others all the time,” says Julia Gabriel, a petite 29-year-old Guatemalan Mayan farmworker. Gabriel first came to the U.S. in 1992 and found herself in debt bondage to the employer who had arranged for her to come. She was held captive among 70 undocumented workers in a South Carolina labor compound for three months. After escaping, she became a key witness in the U.S. v. Flores case, which led to the federal Worker Exploitation Task Force in 1998 and Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000. Ten years later, she shares her story at rallies and interviews, and now over Radio Consciencia's airwaves, to dispel the myth that slavery is dead in America. This was one of five modern-day slavery operations the CIW helped bring to justice, resulting in freedom for over 500 workers from debt bondage.

In Spanish, Haitian Creole, and native Mexican and Guatemalan languages like Quanjobal, Zapotec, and Quiche, the Coalition's members go door-to-door during the busy winter harvest season explaining the Coalition's efforts to win higher wages and better working conditions. The turnover is heavy—a new wave of migrant workers arrives every winter—and each new face in a trailer is a fresh challenge—but is also another potential partner in the Coalition's struggle for fair pay and decent treatment in the fields.

When CIW reaches workers, they have won impressive victories, including, in 1998, 13 to 25 percent raises for tomato pickers, and, in 2002, convictions of three crewleaders for forcing 700 workers into slavery in Florida citrus groves. But they needed another way to contact those workers they weren't reaching on foot.

That's where Prometheus was able to help. The Prometheus Radio Project, for which I'm an organizer, is a non-profit organization that fights for a more democratic radio dial. Founded in 1998 by veterans of the pirate radio movement, we were at the forefront of the grassroots struggle that led the FCC to create new low-power radio licenses to serve community needs that weren't being met by the big broadcasters. Now, we travel all over the country building these low-power, community radio stations for groups who need them.

Prometheus has done six of these building projects, called “Radio Barnraisings,” in the spirit of neighbors coming together to build a barn. Prometheus folks work intimately with the nascent station founders, and help them find and build the necessary equipment cheaply and sustainably, so a team of volunteers with few resources besides a lot of heart can keep a station on the air permanently, for a community that really needs it.

The FCC finally issued the Coalition a permit for a station in 2003. Previous barnraisings with an anti-sprawl and environmental organization on the Chesapeake Bay, and a 25-year-old civil rights foundation in Opelousas, Louisiana, prepared Prometheus for the technical challenges we'd meet. Yet our goal in Florida was not just to raise the Coalition's tower, wire their audio console, and test out equipment, but to gather hundreds of existing and potential radio pioneers from all across the southeast and around the world, and, together, give birth to this new station. All in the course of one long weekend.

In December 2003, members of Prometheus arrived in Immokalee and began holding workshops on radio transmissions, radio receivers, ground interrupters, fuses, and how to be a deejay. Meanwhile, CIW members taught us about their organizing strategies and successes. They described three general strikes, a 30-day hunger strike to protest their low pay, and a 230-mile march from Immokalee to Miami and back, before the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting last year, to publicize the plight of farmworkers around the world.

“Prometheus began to understand our struggle, and the workers learned which buttons to push to make our words take flight,” said Gerardo Reyes Chaves, a Coalition staffer.

The radio activists and the farmworkers strategized for the larger media democracy movement by breaking into small groups and hashing out the problems in our local communities. One conversation on the most creative ways to challenge the licenses of local Clear Channel stations, conducted by a Montessori teacher from Puerto Rico, a gardener just released from jail for protesting the Free Trade Area of the Americas pact, and a local ham radio enthusiast, went on late into the night, in the back room of the empty office building we used as our conference center. The barnraising was building not only a local community, but a national community as well.

Meanwhile, a horde of volunteers was working on the mast that would hold the antenna and setting the cable that would link the studio, the transmitter, and the donated console. As the Sunday night deadline for the birth of the station approached, volunteers were still recording one last public service announcement and soldering one last cable. Somehow it all came together. The first broadcast of Radio Consciencia began.

The station quickly proved its importance during last year's hurricane season. A company called Balance hired over 600 people to work with cleanup and reconstruction in areas of Florida most affected by Hurricane Charley. One day, four of these workers stopped by the Coalition office and explained that they had not been paid, nor had another 300 workers. Radio Consciencia issued an on-air invitation to the people who had not received their checks to register at the Coalition and demand payment from the company.

“We put the announcement on-air at 5:00 pm and expected, at most, 30 to 40 people to respond that night. Two hours later, nearly 300 workers had arrived at our office,” explained Chaves. Those 300, along with CIW organizers, confronted Balance management at its offices. The workers were promptly paid $57,000 in back wages.

Regular CIW meetings that used to draw 40 workers now routinely draw hundreds.

The radio became a fundamental tool in the Coalition's Taco Bell boycott. YUM! Brands owns some of the world's biggest fast food franchises, including Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Long John Silver, A&W, and Taco Bell. YUM! is the largest buyer of the tomatoes that the farmworkers of Immokalee pick. Because of its huge buying power, the company is able to demand low-priced tomatoes, which pushes wages down and increases pressure for poor working conditions.

In 2001, the CIW approached YUM! and asked for guarantees against forced labor and for a one-cent-per-pound wage increase for tomato pickers—to no avail. So the boycott began.

Radio Consciencia aired shows explaining the relation between Taco Bell's profits and the hardships of the workers who pick the tomatoes the company buys. The station also aired announcements about national tours to publicize the boycott and invited workers to participate in planning them.

Chaves, Luisa Fernandez, Julia Gabriel, and dozens of other Coalition leaders have spoken to groups of students from Monterey to Michigan to Maine asking them to work to ban Taco Bell franchises on their college campuses. Twenty-one campuses have bowed to the student pressure so far, banning Taco Bell or preventing Taco Bell franchises from opening, and students at more than 350 universities are organizing to “Boot the Bell.”

As Prometheus fights to expand low-power FM radio, we depend on the Coaltion's trust-building, storytelling methods to reach new media activists. The time is now to fight to expand this service to reach the communities that need it most, so we can tell our stories over our own airwaves.


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