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Great Taco Boycott The Satya Interview with Julia
Boycott Update: A Penny Per
On March 8th, in the midst of the Taco Bell Truth tour, Taco Bell
Corp. agreed to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)
to address the wages and working conditions of farm workers in
the Florida tomato industry.
According to CIW’s press release, Taco Bell announced that it will undertake
joint efforts with the CIW on several fronts to improve working conditions in
Florida’s tomato fields.
Taco Bell will pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes from the Coalition of
Immokalee Workers. The extra penny paid per pound—about $100,000 annually—will
be funneled to the farm workers through a small group of suppliers. Taco Bell
pledges to make this commitment real by buying only from Florida growers who
pass this penny per pound payment entirely on to the farm workers, and by working
jointly with the CIW and their suppliers to monitor the pass-through for compliance.
For its part, the CIW has agreed to end its three-year boycott of Taco Bell.
CIW will be meeting with their supporters to discuss the future and new direction
of their campaign. According to CIW members, this is “just the beginning.” —www.ciw-online.org
In the beginning...tomatoes grew as wild, cherry-size
berries in the South American Andes, but the fruit, as we know it today,
in Mexico where it was known as tomatil. Considered to be a relation
of the deadly nightshade, American colonists believed the tomato to
be a poison. The tomato’s reputation was salvaged by Robert Gibbon
Johnson, who stood on the New Jersey courthouse steps in 1820 and ate
a tomato—without experiencing any harm, to the astonishment of
Today the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit. In fact more than 60
million tons of tomatoes are harvested each year, 16 million tons more than the
banana. The French call the tomato “the apple of love,” the Germans “the
apple of paradise.” Here in the U.S. the workers who pick tomatoes consider
them to be the core of their impoverishment—the root that binds them to
a life of modern slavery.
Modern day slaves—like the tomato pickers of Florida—are held against
their will by their employers through threats and the actual use of violence.
Beatings, shootings, and pistol-whippings are all too common. The Coalition of
Immokalee Workers (CIW)—based in Immokalee, southwest Florida—has
been organizing as a community to improve labor relations and increase wages
and working conditions for members. In November 2003, three CIW members were
honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work fighting
to end modern day slavery and other labor abuses in the agricultural industry.
CIW is also a coordinator of the Freedom Network Institute on Human Trafficking,
which trains law enforcement, social services providers, and community members
on how to identify and assist victims of trafficking.
In 2001, CIW organized and unveiled the first-ever farm worker boycott of a major
fast food company. The national boycott of Taco Bell demands that the fast food
giant take responsibility for the human rights abuses in the fields where its
produce is cultivated. Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! Brands is responsible
for the inhumane working conditions of the men and women who pick their tomatoes.
To make matters worse, Yum is the world’s largest restaurant company—larger
than McDonald’s—and is made up of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long
John Silvers, and A&W Restaurants.
With the help from such names as Martin Sheen, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Sarandon,
Eric Schlosser, Noam Chomsky, Julia Butterfly Hill, the Indigo Girls, and Naomi
Klein, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was more than ready to kick off their
Taco Bell Truth Tour for a fair-food nation. On the second day of the 2005 tour,
Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with CIW spokesperson Julia
Tell me about how the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began.
The coalition is a community-based, worker-run organization with largely Latino,
Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrant members working in low-wage jobs in the state
of Florida. People don’t realize that more than 2,500 CIW members work
for large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests, or that
southwest Florida is the state’s most important center for agricultural
production, and Immokalee is the state’s largest farm worker community.
CIW started in the mid-90s around the injustices of the agricultural workers.
At that time we were fighting for basic respect and dignity on the job as well
as trying to bring the agriculture industry into the 21st century—in terms
of workers’ rights and labor standards. And the CIW basically stands for
that—basic human rights for workers. We fight for a fair wage, for a fair
day’s work, for more respect from bosses and the industries, for better
and less expensive housing, for stronger laws and stronger enforcement against
those who abuse workers’ rights, and for the right to organize without
fear. We fight against modern day slavery.
What does the CIW mean when it uses the term “slavery”?
We refer to conditions that meet the definition of slavery under U.S. federal
laws. Modern day slavery is a violation of the 13th Amendment. CIW has helped
bring several cases to justice, all of which have been prosecuted by the U.S.
Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, either under laws forbidding indentured
servitude or peonage, or under the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection
Are farm workers still excluded from the unionization laws?
Yes, the farm workers and domestic workers are the two groups who are excluded
from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gives other workers the right
to organize and bring their bosses to the table. Because we are excluded, we
are powerless to do that.
What kinds of tactics does CIW use to achieve change?
We use a whole variety of tactics. When we first started, we began with the community—the
workers themselves. On one occasion a crew leader beat a worker bloody for stopping
to get a drink of water without permission—that type of thing happens pretty
frequently. So the coalition organized a march against violence and about 500
people rallied to that crew leader’s house chanting ‘An injury to
one is an injury to all.’
We have also held community-wide work stoppages, a 30-day hunger strike by six
members, and a 236-mile march across the state of Florida. But because of our
exclusion from the NLRA, the contractors simply wouldn’t talk with us.
This is why we started the Taco Bell boycott. We began to see that other entities
were benefiting from our low wages and poverty, so we started a nationwide corporate
responsibility campaign to get the fast food industry to take responsibility
for the conditions of their supply chain.
Can you tell us about what happened in Lake Placid, Florida?
In the Lake Placid case, the employers of over 700 farm workers attacked van
drivers who stopped in Lake Placid to pick up workers traveling north for work.
They threatened the workers with death if they tried to leave, and pistol-whipped
and assaulted at gunpoint the van drivers who they accused of “taking their
people.” Three of the employers were convicted in federal court on slavery,
extortion, and weapons charges and sentenced to a total of nearly 35 years in
prison and a penalty of $3 million.
What is the typical work day like for Immokalee workers?
In Immokalee it is day labor. Workers get up at about four in the morning to
prepare their meals and then go out to the main parking lot in town where people
are picked up by buses. They all go there to look for work; they never know if
they are going to find work or not. But if they are lucky enough, they go out
to the fields which can be anywhere between 15 minutes to three hours away.
Depending on weather conditions, they may have to wait for the plants to dry
before they can start picking them. They don’t actually start getting paid
until they have filled a bucket and turned it in for a token which represents
40 to 45 cents, depending on the company. That is what they get paid for every
32-pound bucket of tomatoes. That means to make $50 they have to pick 125 buckets—two
tons of tomatoes a day! That is not always possible and it definitely is not
easy. You think 32 pounds isn’t that heavy—but hauling that bucket
on your shoulder for 100 feet to a quarter of a mile to the truck is incredibly
difficult work. It is heavy and dirty and you are expected to do this all very
quickly. It is very repetitive and done in harsh conditions—usually 90
to 95 degrees with very high humidity. The pesticides are also just so dangerous.
All this, and Taco Bell charges $1.86 for one chalupa.
You do this all day long and then you get on the bus again, usually arriving
home after dusk. Your home, your trailer is dilapidated and over-crowded because
with these low wages, you don’t have different housing options. So you
share with 12 other people—one toilet, one shower, one stove. And this
space is usually without air-conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter.
Yet workers are still paying between $350 and $400 a week for a run-down trailer.
Exorbitant rents. It’s part of the whole system that keeps workers poor
and keeps them in undignified conditions.
Who owns the housing?
Outside of Immokalee housing is typically owned by the contractors or crew leaders.
Inside Immokalee they are controlled by powerful slum lords who are taking advantage
of the fact that workers need to be close to the center of town to get to the
pick-up spot and find work in the morning.
Why Taco Bell?
Taco Bell is one of the largest buyers of tomatoes in the fast food industry.
They are also part of Yum! Brands which is the world’s largest fast food
chain, larger than McDonald’s. Taco Bell also profits from farm workers’ sub-poverty
wages and poor quality working environment—no right to overtime, no right
to organize, a per bucket rate that hasn’t changed since 1978, no sick
leave, no health insurance, and no benefits whatsoever.
And when Yum! Brands consolidated to form this humongous corporation, they bought
the power of the Unified Foodservice Purchasing Co-op (UFPC), a corporation that
does all of the volume buying of food products for the five Yum! Brand companies
and uses that power to get the lowest prices possible for its client chains.
In agriculture, this translates directly into a downward pressure on the wages
and working conditions of farm workers. Through this cooperative, Yum is able
to demand cheaper prices for their tomatoes because they buy so much. They are
also able to demand year-round supply and high quality tomatoes. So we thought
wouldn’t it just make sense that the tomatoes they were demanding also
ensured that human rights were not being violated?
Tell me about the Taco Bell Truth Tour.
The tour took off two days ago—hear the panic in my voice [laughter]?
We have two buses of our workers and allies from across the country currently
on a two-leg tour. They will be stopping in about 16 cities over the next couple
of days to perform community-wide protests, educational events, speaking engagements,
and taking time to learn about the struggles going on in those communities as
On Saturday both the buses will be coming together in Louisville, KY, the home
of Yum! Brands. There we have a week of action and education planned. We will
actually be spending time with the different constituents of the boycott: one
day with people of faith who have been very supportive of the boycott, one day
we will be with the students, the true target market of Taco Bell. But the students
have really aligned themselves with the workers and to date 21 victories have
taken place across the country, where students have been able to block or remove
Taco Bells from their campus. It has been just fabulous. It shows Taco Bell that
these students aren’t just consumer dollars—the fast food generation.
They are people very concerned about what is behind the products they consume.
Then we will be spending a day with other workers in the community. Other organizations,
including small farmers in KY, who are getting pressured as the agriculture industry
continues to consolidate. The small farmers are struggling to survive by trying
to make locally grown produce more available and raise awareness around food
issues. Most CIW farm workers are immigrant workers from south Mexico, Guatemala,
Haiti, where they were small farmers themselves, peasant farmers living off the
land. So there are a lot of connections between these communities.
Then we will be doing an educational tour to really explore the expansion of
the wealth gap—where the fruit of the farm workers and the working class
in this country really goes. And then there is the big rally on March 12 where
farm workers and people who have been supporting this boycott will gather in
front of Yum! Brands and demand that human rights becomes a priority. That rally
will feature Martin Sheen and Kerry Kennedy.
Do you use special displays when you are outside Yum’s headquarters?
We are a grassroots organization without a whole lot of resources, but we have
the truth behind us. Last year we had activists in the march walk with a long
rope of Taco Bell’s dirty laundry—sweat-stained, soiled workers’ clothes
that were then hung on Yum! Brands’ security fence. We also constructed
a pyramid of 120 buckets standing well over two stories tall that represent the
two tons of tomatoes that workers have to pick to earn $50 in a day. This year
we will have photos that the farm workers have been taking of their hands when
they come out of the fields after a hard day’s work. And you can just see
how pesticides and dirt and blood stain them. It is just an amazing visual to
actually see the humanity behind the nice juicy tomatoes that you see in your
It’s all about voicing and educating. Companies like Starbucks have also
been targeted by consumer campaigns for unfair labor practices. They still have
a long way to go. And when leaders of the U.S. chocolate industry were faced
with modern day slavery in the cocoa plantations, the president of the Chocolate
Manufacturer’s Association eventually accepted responsibility for child
For more information on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Taco Bell Truth Tour,
and the documentary Immokalee: From Slavery to Freedom visit www.ciw-online.org.