Publix refuses to negotiate with farmworker coalition
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03/01/10 Joshua Lee Holton
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Tomato pickers are still lobbying for better wages for farm workers in operations they call modern-day slavery. Last Saturday Tampa residents including University of South Florida students and people of faith protested in front of a Publix supermarket because it has not agreed to work with Florida tomato pickers to end a range of alleged exploitations in its supply chain.

What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

A dozen protesters shouted slogans from the sidewalk off Nebraska Avenue. They chanted phrases like, “Publix, shame on you; farm workers are people, too.” The workers are paid about 50 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. Workers say they would have to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes each day to earn the equivalent of Florida minimum wage for a 10-hour workday. Workers say that with a one-cent increase, they could make as much as 82 cents a bucket, almost doubling their wages.

Heather Vega is an organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Tampa Campaign for Fair Food.

And that’s significant, since the wages have not changed since 1978.

The coalition was started in the early 1990s by farm workers who wanted to fight for fair wages after tomato pickers were physically abused by employers, given sub-poverty wages, and subjected to what the workers call modern day slavery. The Campaign for Fair Food was successful in getting such corporations as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Bon Apetit, Yum brands, Taco Bell, and Whole Foods to reach agreements with the coalition.

The six corporations that have reached agreements with the coalition—well, this for sure: There’s going to be verification; there’s going to be a monitoring system; there’s going to be transparency to ensure the money does get to the workers, as long as they have member growers that will pass the money along. And this is changing; there are already three Florida tomato growers that are passing along the penny, and we hope for more. But the way for this to really happen is through direct binding agreements with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The negotiations have resulted in a penny-per-pound increase with those six corporations. Vega says workers will be able to participate in a social responsibility program. Now, the coalition is reaching out to other grocery stores.

Because the four largest fast-food corporations in the world have reached the agreement, now we have more of a focus on the grocery stores, and also on the food service providers. So right now the campaign is calling on Aramark, a large food service provider, Sodexo, and Kroger Company. But right here in Florida, we’re really pushing hard for Publix, given that their headquarters are in Lakeland.

In the past, The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange would have fined exchange members $100,000 for passing a penny-per-pound wage increase for workers. Recently, it reversed that policy. Vega doesn’t approve of the new policy, because the new program doesn’t include the same worker participation opportunity as with the deals the coalition has worked out on its own.

They are not demanding; they are not saying that they are going to monitor or verify, and ensure that this happens. But rather they are saying: They allow it. So this does not ensure, guarantee, that the penny will be passed along. And this is not an initiative that they just took from the kindness of their heart. This is in response to the coalition, to the CIW’s, agreements. Just because they say they are going to allow to pass the penny along does not guarantee that the money will actually get to the workers.

Some growers have agreed to work with the worker coalition. Protester Kim Kavazanjian says this gives her optimism about the future for tomato pickers.

East Coast Growers—it’s the third-largest tomoato growers’ organization—has decided to work with McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, Subway, all the other companies that have joined the CIW, to actually pass the penny per pound, and to put in the code of conduct. So that’s very exciting.

During the protest the store manager for the Publix on Nebraska Avenue agreed to accept information from farm worker advocates. But a spokesperson for the corporate office of Publix, Shannon Patten, says the grocery chain will continue to pay market price for tomatoes, and will not get involved in disputes between farm workers and suppliers.

As far as tomatoes, I mean, Publix pays fair market value for the tomatoes. We don’t determine what that price should be; we pay the market value for the tomatoes. But it’s not something that we are involved in; it’s not something that we’re going to get involved in. We view this as a labor dispute, and we don’t get involved in those.

Patten claims that Publix does not support some growers that exploit workers.

We currently do not do business with Six L’s or Pacific Tomatoes. We have used those two suppliers periodically in the past, but we currently do not do business with them. I don’t work in the produce side of the business, but I can tell you that we are getting our tomatoes from other sources.

Next month, the farm worker coalition plans to march from Tampa to Lakeland to protest Publix’s policies further. Kim Kavazanjian expects a high turnout.

We’re expecting about 2,000 people to come to the march over the three days. It’ll start in Tampa April 16, and end in Lakeland, in Munn Park, on April 18. And we’re hoping that this will bring the message to Publix that plenty of consumers do really care about this issue.

And because Publix made over 24 billion dollars in revenue last year, the coalition insists that the grocery store can use its purchasing power to make wiser and more ethical choices when buying produce. The workers’ slogan says that there can be “no fair market price for slavery.”

More information:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers Phone: 239-503-1533

Publix Phone: 863-688-1188

Previous WMNF coverage of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers: Farm workers protest Publix in Lakeland, 200 CIW farm workers and allies protest Publix, The Coalition Of Immokalee Workers campaigns for tomato harvesters.

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