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April 2005
The Great Taco Boycott
The Satya Interview with Julia Perkins

 

Immokalee Worker
Photo: www.ciw-online.org
Boycott Update: A Penny Per Pound

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, was developed 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 the town.

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 Perkins.

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 Act.

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 well.

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 taco.

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 labor practices.

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.

 

 



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