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Taco Bell ‘Truth Tourâ€TM Highlights Poverty Wages

by Andrew Stelzer

Tomato pickers for the fast food giant Taco Bell -- who make around $8,000 a year -- head out on tour to highlight their low pay and working conditions.

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

St. Louis; Mar. 7, 2005 – Busloads of impoverished immigrant farmworkers embarked on the Taco Bell Truth Tour this week, demanding that the fast food giant use its political and economic power to increase their wages and improve working conditions.

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Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian tomato pickers are traveling in two buses from their hometown of Immokalee, Florida to eight states through the Southeast and Midwest for the fourth annual tour. Along the way, they are protesting outside Taco Bell restaurants in partnership with student groups and speaking at churches, which offer them a place to sleep on the way.

At a press conference in front of the Federal Building in Montgomery, Alabama, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the group organizing the tour, held up 32-pound buckets to show how many tomatoes they must pick to bring in 40 cents. To make 50 dollars, a worker must pick 4,000 pounds of tomatoes in one day. Most workers make less than $8,000 a year. The workers demand that Taco Bell force the agribusinesses that sell to the fast food chains’ subcontractors to give their employees a penny-a-pound raise and provide a written guarantee that their workers will not suffer any human rights abuses.

The CIW, created by farmworkers in 1995, aims to increase public awareness of the workers' plight. The coalition also operates a low-power radio station, and uses their office as a meeting room and cooperative store, where workers can buy staple foods, phone cards, and other necessities at affordable prices.

To earn 50 dollars, a worker must pick 2,000 pounds of tomatoes in one day.

Benidicto Mejia, who has been a migrant farmworker since childhood, noted that his pay used to provide him with enough for basic necessities, but said wages have not kept up with the cost of living. Minimum wage laws can be skirted by a per-piece picked pay scale, and, as a result, farmworker wages have declined in real dollars between 1989 and 1998. Currently, farmworkers do not receive overtime pay, they do not have the right to organize a union, and they receive no health insurance. Furthermore, their employment is at the mercy of the weather -- during dry spells, there is no work.

Leonardo Martinez, who has been a farmworker for more than 40 years, says he’s "not living, but surviving." When skeptical college students in Tallahassee asked a crowd of 50 CIW members and students protesting outside a Taco Bell why they don’t just find new jobs, several workers respond by saying that, even if they sought work elsewhere, someone new would fill their job, for the same low wages and poor working conditions.

"No one deserves to be paid that little," said Melody Gonzalez, the daughter of farmworker, who is traveling with the tour as a translator. Coalition members frequently talk about how the CIW is not just working to get higher wages for themselves, but also to fundamentally reform the industry.

The workers are targeting Yum Brands, the corporation that owns Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers, and A & W. The Unified Foodservice Purchasing Coop, created by Yum in 1998, buys food in bulk for the company's franchises. Truth Tour participants, like Gonzalez, hope that convincing Yum to increase the price it will pay for raw goods like tomatoes will encourage agriculture bosses to pay their workers a decent wage. "We are asking [Yum] to be an example," Gonzalez told students at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.

Although Yum does not disclose where the vegetables to make their food are grown, 45 percent of tomatoes grown in the US are from Florida, according to the Florida Tomato Committee, a statewide marketing group. During the winter months, that number rises to 95 percent, according to the committee.

Louisville, Kentucky -- the home of Yum Brands -- will be the last stop on the tour and the farmworkers and their allies plan a week of rallies and teach-ins, culminating with a day-long conference on global justice and a protest outside Yum's corporate headquarters.

The tour is only one part of a much larger campaign, involving students, community activists, and workers across the country. Last year, students at six universities conducted hunger strikes in solidarity with the CIW. In addition, as part of a "Boot the Bell" campaign, students at 21 schools have claimed victory in seeing Taco Bell removed from their campuses or in preventing them from opening a new outlet.

Nevertheless, Taco Bell spokeswoman Laurie Schalow maintained that all but one of the franchise closings were actually "business decisions," and said UCLA was the only campus where a Taco Bell closed as a result of the "Boot the Bell" campaign.

Schalow added that CIW’s four-year-long campaign to convince consumers to boycott Taco Bell has not affected sales at its more than 6,500 restaurants -- sales in 2003 totaled 5.4 billion dollars. However, she admits the boycott has hurt Taco Bell’s image. "They’ve very strategically reached out to college students and church organizations, as well as other groups," she said. "We don’t like that there are people out there who think that we are a bad company."

Still, the company appears more or less unaffected by the protests, bragging on its website that, "On the average, 147 million people see a Taco Bell commercial once a week -- more than half of the US population."

However, the CIW has had some success dealing with the worker's bosses on the individual farms. In 1996, in response to the beating of a worker who asked for a drink of water, the coalition led a campaign against violence in the fields. Since then they have created programs to monitor abuse of farmworkers, resulting in the conviction of three crew leaders in Lake Placid, FL. Coalition members also helped found the National Freedom Network Institute on Human Trafficking.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a lead organizer for the CIW for the past five years said it is already a success for "an immigrant community to organize a national campaign against one of the largest and most successful Mexican restaurants in the country, owned by one of the largest fast food corporations on the planet." He says the CIW is in communication with Taco Bell, and he believes that, as the boycott continues to gain the support of more than 100 religious groups, unions, human rights organizations, and celebrities, Taco Bell will eventually have to agree to the workers’ demands.

"This is a movement for civil rights," said Lucas Benitez, one of the CIW leaders. "This problem is much bigger than the farmworkers." Change, he said, can come slowly, especially when "working to change the mentality that corporations have had for years and years."


Major Change:

The original version of this article stated that to make 50 dollars, a worker must pick 2,000 pounds of tomatoes in one day. In fact, a worker must pick 4,000 pounds to make about $50.

 | Change Posted December 7, 2006 at 10:45 AM EST

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Andrew Stelzer is a contributing journalist.

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