Florida farmworkers take on fast-food giant

The young Taco Bell manager in Tallahassee stood wide-eyed and nodded his head in silence as a Florida farmworker explained why about 400 people, mostly Mexican, were lined up around the fast-food restaurant on a recent Sunday morning. They obviously weren't there for tacos.

They were carrying signs with messages such as "We are Not Slaves," giant papier-mache tomatoes, and bull horns through which they shouted "Boycott Taco Bell!"

Frustrated with their lack of ability to negotiate with their employers, farmworkers are taking their complaints and demonstrations to the end users of their products. And they couldn't have picked a larger target. Tricon Global, which owns Taco Bell, has more restaurants than anyone in the world.

Much like the protesters of Nike, which bought shoes from Asian sweatshops, farmworkers are asking people to forgo a Chalupa until Taco Bell starts paying more for its tomatoes.

"What you have is an attempt by a group of workers with very limited rights to [form a] union," says Gary Chaison, a union scholar at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "They are reframing their problem as a civil rights issue.... The worst thing a company can do is to have its name associated with something like exploited labor."

This effort harks back to 40 years of farmworkers struggling to improve their lot in the fields - with decidedly mixed results. The grape boycott in California, led by Cesar Chavez, worked in part because it successfully framed the workers' condition as an affront to civil rights, Mr. Chaison says. But a subsequent lettuce boycott in Arizona failed. He considers the recent boycott of Nike a moderate success, but says it remains to be seen if the campaign against sweatshops will expand to clothing.

Farmworker Romeo Ramirez, who participated in the protest, says workers earn 40 to 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. If Taco Bell paid growers only one penny per pound more for tomatoes, the farmworkers say, they could double their earnings.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in south Florida are not the only farmworkers boycotting food processors in hopes of getting higher wages. Cucumber pickers in North Carolina have been asking consumers to boycott Mt. Olive, the nation's fourth-largest pickle company, for more than two years. Headed by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) of Ohio, the North Carolina workers have the support of more than 200 community, labor, and religious groups nationwide.

Neither Taco Bell, which did not respond to phone calls, nor Mt. Olive employs farm workers. Instead, the corporations buy from growers who hire the pickers, who are often non-English-speaking immigrants.

Mt. Olive spokesperson Lynn Williams says the company is being bullied by FLOC, which is insisting on a union contract for workers that Mt. Olive doesn't employ. "They want us to force farmers into a union contract in order for their employer to do business with us," Williams says. "We don't feel that's appropriate. We always try to identify good suppliers, and if there's problems identified, we cooperate with regulatory agencies.

"We've done business in a fair manner. This has been frustrating, to say the least," Williams says, pointing out that the company has elected not to move its jobs overseas, where standards might be more lax.

But Greg Asbed, a member of the Immokalee coalition, says third-world standards apply exactly to the way many farmworkers live in south Florida. "We're the little Saigon," he says.

According to the US Department of Labor, nationally farmworkers earn $7,500 a year on average and get no benefits, no paid holidays.

In the winter, when Florida supplies the nation's tomatoes, farmworkers like Mr. Ramirez meet in an Immokalee parking lot every morning at 5:30. Growers bus workers two to 200 miles to fields, where they wait until 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. for the dew to dry before picking the fruit. The quickest and strongest workers are able to pick enough tomatoes to earn $40 a day.

Farmworkers have few options, Immokalee worker Lucas Benitez says through an interpreter. Federal labor law that ensures other workers the right to collective bargaining doesn't apply to farm workers.

Only California has a law that gives farm workers any negotiating power. And because most workers already live below the poverty line and have little savings to fall back on, striking could make them homeless.

Mr. Asbed says that the coalition is planning a decentralized campaign to reach Taco Bell's target market, 18- to-24 year olds, and get them to boycott the restaurants. "This is a sector of the population that has thought a lot about corporations and what constitutes responsible corporate behavior," he says. "We're going to reach them through schools, universities, and the Internet."

Chaison agrees that college campuses are ripe for such a boycott, with a general anticorporate sentiment among students and a hunger for a cause. Plus, it doesn't require much energy.

"[Students] are not going to march. They are not going to go down to Florida and organize farmworkers. But if someone says, 'How do you feel about eating food picked by exploited farmworkers,' they will likely just not eat it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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