Tomato Pickers Win Big At Taco Bell




A

mid
jubilant tears and hugs, Florida tomato pickers announced March
8, 2005 that they had defeated all the odds, and considerable corporate
inertia, to win a clear victory in the first-ever farmworker boycott
campaign against a major fast food restaurant chain, Taco Bell.
Based in Immokalee, Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers
(CIW) represents some of the poorest, most abused workers in the
U.S. 


Taco
Bell is owned by the single largest restaurant corporation in the
world, Yum! Brands. After years of protest, the restaurant “mega-
firm” finally agreed to pay an extra penny a pound for its
tomatoes and to buy only from suppliers who agree to pass along
the extra “one cent for justice” to tomato pickers. Yum!
also agreed to work with CIW to improve conditions in the fields
and called on other restaurant firms to follow suit. 


Beginning
to address these working conditions, for example, the company says
it will now take steps to ensure that its tomato suppliers no longer
employ indentured servants, immigrant farmworkers who are locked
into squalid labor camps at night until they pay off certain debts.
Corporate spokes- people said the company would “eat the cost”
of the agreement instead of passing the increase along to consumers.
They also made it clear the agreement applies to Taco Bell alone,
saying their other restaurants don’t buy enough Florida tomatoes
to have an impact on the market. Last year, Taco Bell purchased
more than 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes, almost one percent
of the state crop. 


Yum!
owns over 33,000 restaurants in over 100 countries and territories,
including KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and A&W restaurants.
It employs more than 840,000 workers worldwide, making it bigger
than McDonalds. Yum! grossed over $9 billion last year, just shy
of McDonalds’ annual revenue. 



The
Union Difference 



T

he
farmworkers’ win at Taco Bell was impressive because of the
unusually precarious nature of their work. As agricultural workers,
they are not covered under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act
which makes it illegal for employers to fire employees for union
activity, certifies union elections, and oversees collective bargaining.
Nor do they enjoy the protections of other basic labor laws in the
U.S., such as federal minimum wage and overtime laws.



Many
U.S. farm laborers are immigrants, often undocumented, and routinely
face working and living conditions that are unthinkable to most
Americans. Conditions may include long hot work days, little or
no access to drinking water or toilets, and beatings or other harassment.
Some workers have even been held at gunpoint in the fields. 


For
this life, farmworkers in the U.S. generally earn about 40 cents
for picking 32 pounds of tomatoes, the same rate in real terms as
they earned 30 years ago. A picker has to gather fully one ton of
tomatoes to earn $25. 


In
the late 1970s wages in the fields began a precipitous decline and
continued dropping throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Then
in 1993 a group of farm laborers in Immokalee, the largest agricultural
center in Florida, began meeting in a local church to talk about
how to bring about change.  



O

ver
the next few years the group organized a number of work stoppages,
combined with public pressure, including three general strikes,
a month-long hunger strike, and a 230-mile march from Ft. Myers
to Orlando in 2000. By the end of the 1990s the Coalition of Immokalee
Workers had won wage increases of 13-25 percent across the industry,
not just for themselves. This series of victories ended the 20-year
plummet of farmworker pay and raised wage rates back to the mid-1970’s
level, earning farmworker communities several million dollars a
year. 


Lucas
Benitez, of the CIW, believes the extra penny per pound paid by
Taco Bell should substantially improve the wages of about 1,000
tomato pickers employed by Taco Bell suppliers. He says that under
the new agreement these workers could earn up to 72 cents for a
32-pound bucket, an increase of 80 percent. “It would mean
almost reaching the poverty level,” Benitez told one reporter. 



Outside
The Bun 



T

aco
Bell and its corporate owner had resisted CIW’s demands for
years, saying that the fast food giant was only one buyer of Florida
tomatoes and that it would agree only if the rest of the industry
would also pay more. In fact, as most union organizers understand,
resistance to unions is rarely about the money alone. 


As
if to prove this, Taco Bell at one point offered to make a direct
payment to CIW of $100,000, the same amount as the company’s
estimate of the total cost of the penny per pound “pass through.”
The company said they intended the payment to help CIW lobby the
state legislature for protective regulations on the industry as
a whole—and of course to stop the protests. CIW rejected the
offer. 


Taco
Bell had also argued from the beginning that it was not the direct
employer of the tomato pickers. This is true, but the additional
point and the implication, that the chain had no control over its
tomato suppliers, is not true. As a huge buyer of tomatoes, CIW
argued, Taco Bell applied constant pressure on its suppliers to
keep costs low, which in turn exerted downward pressure on the pickers’
wages. Echoing the company’s own ad campaign, CIW urged Taco
Bell to “think outside the bun.” 





It
is a slogan the Immokalee Workers take to heart. Their strategies
show remarkable creativity and savvy, adapting their organizing
to labor markets that combine 19th century conditions with the latest
innovations in capitalist globalization. Their internal egalitarianism,
too, is almost unique among modern-day unions. Even Benitez, who
often speaks for the group, avoids using an official title. “We
are all leaders,” he and others in CIW will say, when asked. 


The
Immokalee Workers see themselves as part of a movement, fighting
for the rights of an entire community, not just their dues-paying
members. Their lack of legal rights forces them to rely upon a wide
variety of persuasive techniques, but what it does not force is
the overcautious narrowness of purpose as in the standard union
model. Theirs is a community unionism—one that wins. 


The
CIW strategy also seems to involve widening that community to encompass
concerned individuals and groups other than farmworkers. The Taco
Bell campaign reached out to churches, labor unions and student-labor
networks established in the anti-sweatshop movement. They often
made this last connection explicit, calling for an end to “the
sweatshops in the fields.” 


The
student campaign hit the company where it hurt. Taco Bell’s
main marketing target is 18-to- 24-year-olds, collectively known
in the restaurant’s market strategies as “The new hedonism
generation.” In the end, students at more than 20 high schools
and colleges—including UCLA, University of Notre Dame, and
the University of Chicago—organized “Boot the Bell”
mini-campaigns to block or kick out on-campus Taco Bell restaurants. 


CIW
also works with the U.S. Department of Justice, so far forcing at
least five federal prosecutions on human slavery charges, most recently
involving 3 Florida citrus growers who had been holding over 700
workers in slavery. Overall, the group’s website proclaims,
“We have liberated over 1,000 workers.” 


Together
with some of its allies, CIW co-founded the national Freedom Network
Institute on Human Trafficking and now serves as Regional coordinator
for the south- eastern U.S. for the Institute. In this capacity,
the group conducts trainings for law enforcement and social service
personnel in identifying and assisting victims of slavery, in addition
to their advocacy for full prosecution of all traffickers, both
corporations and subcontractors. 


This
anti-slavery work continues, as does the overall fight against poverty
in the fields. Both depend heavily on CIW’s grassroots organizing.
Given that there is no government enforcement agency to oversee
an agreement, such as the new Taco Bell accord, for example, constant
vigilance will be the price of victory. There are other buyers,
too—as CIW noted before the ink was dry. 


“Systemic
change to ensure human rights for farmworkers is long-overdue. Taco
Bell has now taken an important leadership role by securing the
penny per pound pass-through from its tomato suppliers and by the
other efforts it has committed to undertake to help win equal rights
for farmworkers,” Benitez told reporters. “But our work
together is not done. Now we must convince other companies that
they have the power to change the way they do business and the way
workers are treated.” 


Benitez
said the Immokalee Workers are open to future protests and boycotts
to pressure other produce buyers into helping the farmworkers. “Anything
is possible in this struggle,” he said.





Ricky Baldwin
is a labor activist and frequent contributor to



Z Magazine



,



Dollars & Sense,



and



Labor Notes