200 CIW farm workers and allies protest Publix
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11/16/09 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

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A penny per pound of tomatoes. That's the pay increase a group of Florida farm workers is asking for. But the supermarket chain Publix does not want to get involved in negotiations.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) campaigned across Pinellas County over the weekend. On Sunday, close to 200 farm workers, church members, college students, and other social justice activists marched the five blocks from one Publix to another in south St. Petersburg. Gerardo Reyes, a member of the CIW, feels he and the other workers deserve their first significant pay increase since 1978.

Reyes “The corporations that buy the tomatoes – basically we call on them to do the right thing. That’s how the campaign started because at the end of the day, they benefit the most - more than anybody else in all of this - from the poverty of the workers.”

But unlike some other chains that purchase tomatoes, Publix is not willing to ask their suppliers to pay farm workers the extra penny per pound. Spokesperson Shannon Patten says the supermarket does not get involved in labor disputes.

Patten “We have over 35,000 different products at Publix supermarkets and we just have a practice of not intervening between [sic] labor disputes between a supplier and their employees.”

On Sunday morning, CIW took its message to several area churches. Members of those churches turned out in force for the demonstrations and the march. Reverend Phil Miller-Evans is pastor at Church of the Beatitudes. He doesn’t buy Publix’s excuse for why they won’t intervene between farm owners and workers.

Miller-Evans “They get involved when they purchase their produce from farms that have been in the news for their poor practices. They’re not directly involved in the farms themselves, but they are supported by continuing to purchase from these farms that have been cited as being unfair and injust [sic].”

The CIW requested a penny increase from Taco Bell in 2001. The fast food giant agreed to the increase in 2005 and since then several other national chains have signed on. But Publix continues to resist. In fact, it has filmed CIW demonstrations in the past. It took this reporter three times asking virtually the same question before the Publix spokesperson, Patten, admitted Sunday’s demonstration was being filmed by Publix contractors.

Farm worker Reyes says a penny per pound rate increase could lift workers from poverty into a life that would allow them to provide for their families.

Reyes “Right now you get paid 40 to 45 cents for a 32 pound bucket. Which means that in a normal day, working by piece because that’s how the picking goes, if you want only the equivalent of the minimum wage in Florida today or the federal minimum wage, you have to pick more than 2 and a half tons of tomatoes in a single day. That’s without benefits or protections and that’s not per hour. You are running, you have to run because you get paid by piece.”

Several students and staff members from nearby Eckerd College held signs while they marched and chanted. Andrea Solazzo is an environmental service learning intern.

Union members showed their solidarity with the farm workers as well. SEIU member Marty Foutz works in a warehouse for the City of St. Petersburg and wore his purple union t-shirt.

After an hour of waving signs, chanting and marching on the sidewalk in front of the Publix on 34th Street South, the line of marchers crossed 54th Avenue and walked five blocks east to another nearby Publix. A young man walking by, who preferred to remain anonymous, read a flyer he received from a protester.

Anonymous: “… I think it’s a good fight that they’re trying to help ‘em out.”

CIW will rally at Publix headquarters in Lakeland on December 5th.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Publix

Church of the Beatitudes

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