The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Empowered by Victory, Tomato Pickers Look to New Season, New Goals

by Andrew Stelzer

Hot on the heels of their hard-fought win against Taco Bell, Florida’s Immokalee migrant workers and their advocates are far from resting as they plan to take on still more exploitative companies.

Oct. 11, 2005 – In the second week of October, the kickoff of this year’s tomato season in South Florida coincides with the start of a new era for the farms’ immigrant workers. This season will be the first test of the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s (CIW) breakthrough labor agreement with Taco Bell, which won the tomato pickers higher pay, guarantees of better working conditions, and a seat at the negotiating table with suppliers and purchasers.

Since the implementation of the agreement, the Immokalee workers have begun to see some concrete changes in their lives. But their victory last year has sparked a number of new "fair food" campaigns that are beginning to pick up steam.

This past March, after leading a four-year nationwide boycott against Taco Bell, the CIW forced the restaurants’ parent company, Yum Brands, the largest restaurant owner in the world, to pass on a raise of a penny more for each pound of tomatoes picked.

Previously, the farmworkers had to pick 4,000 pounds of tomatoes in a day to earn just $52. The new arrangement offers affected workers a roughly 75 percent raise.

According to Gerardo Reyes Chavez, an organizer with the CIW, Taco Bell also paid a lump sum of approximately $99,000 as payment retroactive to January 1, 2005. The Unified Foodservice Purchasing Co-op (UFPC), a corporation created by Yum Brands to leverage their buying power by purchasing food for all of Yum’s restaurants, distributed the money.

The CIW is monitoring the distribution of remuneration to the workers by conducting monthly audits on all the participants in the chain of supply.

Yum’s chains include Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silvers, and A&W stores. The UFPC then gave the money to the Florida Tomato suppliers, which, in turn, added lump-sum payments onto the checks of tomato pickers who had worked during the first two-and-a-half months of the year at the old pay rate, along with a written explanation of why the extra money was on their checks.

There have been some problems finding workers to reward them with back pay owed, as many are migrants who had moved on from South Florida. For that reason, Chavez told The NewStandard, one long-term goal of the CIW is to establish contracts with the suppliers so that future agreements like the one with Taco Bell can be executed more easily.

Chavez said the CIW is monitoring the distribution of remuneration to the workers by conducting monthly audits on all the participants in the chain of supply and making sure they match up -- reviewing financial reports from Yum, the UFPC and the suppliers, and comparing those numbers with the workers’ paychecks.

Because Taco Bell’s records prior to March 12 are confidential, it is unknown whether they have dropped any tomato suppliers for refusing to pass on the wage increase, but Chavez says the new system guarantees that all current suppliers are doing so. Taco Bell’s policy statement for Florida Tomato Growers notes, "Yum strongly encourages Florida growers in the tomato industry to provide working terms and conditions similar to those provided by suppliers outside of the agricultural industry, and will conduct business with those tomato growers that demonstrate consistent adherence to these higher standards."

Campaign organizers speculate that other fast food giants now fear the stigma of a boycott and worry about their brand image being damaged.

Yum also stated it would jointly investigate any allegations of abuse in the fields, along with the CIW. While instances of abuse in the fields of South Florida have been drastically reduced by the work of the CIW, according to Romeo Ramirez, a CIW member who went undercover in 2000 to expose a slavery ring in which contractors held farmworkers captive, "The attitude of the growers and the bosses still hasn’t changed."

"A lot of these people treat the workers differently or see the workers as below them, so we’re not there yet. The growers kind of have their own world, the corporations have their own world and the workers are put into a separate world," Ramirez told TNS. The agreement alsoonly covers tomatoes, and only those grown in Florida. . Chavez pointed out, "This is just a fraction of the workers in these companies, and that is just a fraction of the agricultural sector in Southwest Florida."

To address those larger issues, the CIW has launched a "fair food" campaign, designed to bring the entire fast-food industry in line with what Taco Bell has done. CIW supporters are mailing letters to McDonalds, Burger King, and Subway, asking them to follow Taco Bell’s lead.

Chavez said they have been in communication with the three companies, but that "nothing concrete has taken place... We haven’t had a serious response."

CIW organizers say the very fact that corporations such as McDonalds are responding to their letters is indicative of what the coalition has achieved. When the workers began writing to Taco Bell in 2001, their letters were ignored. But now Chavez believes the fast-food giants "are hoping that we don’t go after them."

Ramirez said other fast food restaurants like Wendy’s and even grocery store chains like Publix and Wal-Mart are on the CIW’s list of campaign targets.

Through their work over the past eleven years, the CIW has established a network of tens of thousands of allies in the form of student groups, religious organizations, and labor unions. Several dozen of those allies from across the US gathered in Immokalee in August, for a week long reflection and workshop to plan the new campaign. "All of the energy all of the networks that we built up during the boycott is just waiting," said Brie Phillips, an organizer with the Student Farmworkers Alliance . "We’re waiting for the next target."

Campaign organizers speculate that other fast-food giants now fear the stigma of a boycott and worry about their brand image being damaged.

"They [Taco Bell] were really at risk of being branded as ‘uncool’ in the eyes of a lot of their consumers," said Sean Sellers, a Student Farmworkers Alliance staff member who works out of the CIW’s headquarters in Immokalee. "For a company that spends as much money on advertising and publicity as they do, image is everything."

Ramirez said other fast-food restaurants like Wendy’s and even grocery store chains like Publix and Wal-Mart are on the CIW’s list of campaign targets. "Right now we’re taking our first steps, Ramirez said. "Once we can get all the corporations in this industry to make the change, that’s when the bigger impact is going to come."

"We are going to pose the same questions we did to Taco Bell and Yum Brands, about the conditions of the workers, the role that they have and the obligation that they have, in order to change those conditions," Chavez said.

As for who to target first, it will depend on the progress of negotiations with the CIW and what the investigations into the companies’ track records reveal. "There are varying degrees of irresponsibility. So the most irresponsible is the most perfect choice for a boycott," Chavez said. "I’m sure that they are thinking about how to avoid this happening. The best way is to just to listen to the people, listen to the consumer, and do something that is fair."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Andrew Stelzer is a contributing journalist.

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