Coalition of Immokalee Workers kicks off march to Lakeland

04/16/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began a three-day march from Tampa to Lakeland. The group and its supporters are demanding that Publix, which is headquartered in Lakeland, spend a penny more per pound of tomatoes it buys from Florida growers. Coalition co-founder and staff member Lucas Benitez says his group wants to send Lakeland a message about its successful hometown company.

We wanted to share with them our reality at Immokalee. What is the Publix—when they decided to make the right thing, and improve the conditions for our families.

The CIW says the extra penny will result in better pay for tomato pickers, who earn sub-poverty wages. Some earn as little as $50 a day for picking and hauling as much as two tons of the crop in one shift. In recent years, there have been well-documented cases of forced labor, brutality, human trafficking, and other offenses by crew leaders. Despite the brutal state of affairs, the mood at the kickoff was jovial.

The rally was a far cry from an event held the day before at the same venue, Chillura Park in downtown Tampa. That event, a Tampa Tea Party Tax Day rally, packed the square with protesters who vehemently decried President Barack Obama. The CIW crowd was much smaller, younger on average, and substantially more diverse. And whether Tea Partiers would have abided a Mexican folk tune is food for thought. But there was one common thread between the two crowds: God.

So we say to Publix, those of us who have gathered here this morning are on the right side of history. We’re on the right side of history marching to the cadence of a different drummer. And the idea of treating farmworkers and their children with dignity and decency is an idea whose time has come.

That was Rev. Charles McKenzie with the Rainbow Push Coalition and the NAACP. He was one of several religious community leaders who spoke at the rally. Another was Rev. Bernice Powell-Jackson, president of the North American Region of the World Council of Churches. She explained why her faith compels her to support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

We know that the Old Testament prophets and we know that Jesus all called for end to oppression of workers. Jesus said, “I come to bring good news for the poor.” So, these are the poor.

Supporters came from around the country. Elizabeth Mount drove to Tampa from Denver for the march.

Every company has a responsibility, in addition to finding the cheapest price, to make sure that the products that they sell are products that they can be proud to sell. And what Publix has done in refusing to condemn slavery is a shameful thing. And I hope that they understand that consumers demand more from them—that we expect that they will have justice in their supply chain.

Silvia Martinez of Austin is with the Proyecto Defense Laboral, or the Workers’ Defense Project. Her group came to show solidarity with the CIW.

These workers … suffering for a long, long time. Unfortunately this is not new; these people working very hard, and they not receive the pay. … The contracts take them, actually, end of the day, they not receive the pay. If they receive the pay, it’s very, very, you know, like nothing—very, very cheap price.

The march kicked off with about 150 people. CIW staffer Lucas Benitez says he expects that number to grow tenfold when the march reaches Lakeland on Sunday. As for Publix, he says, the grocery chain hasn’t budged.

We don’t receive any response in the last month. They is completely quiet, and we are not surprised that they continue quiet, and ignoring this. But it’s impossible to ignore this action, because more and more people, they receive the news about Publix right now. And more people is engaged in this issue.

Publix spokesperson Shannon Patten maintains that Publix will not intervene, and that the matter is between workers and growers.

We do not intervene in labor disputes between suppliers and their employees, and that’s what this is. This is a labor dispute between the supplier and the employees, or the farmer and the workers. What I can tell you is that, you know, growers are required to pay at least minimum wage. But if they desire to pay more, then they can use whatever system they like, as long as it’s legal.

She added that the company no longer buys tomatoes from Pacific Growers and Six L’s, two growers with which the coalition takes particular issue. Patten added that Publix buys tomatoes from East Coast Growers, which she says is the exact grower that CIW wants them to use. Benitez says he’d like to see proof.

If you don’t have a third-party monitor to confirm this, show the public and us, we’re not sure if it is real or not.

Benitez added that even if Publix now has more discretion over who supplies its tomatoes, the coalition’s demands are far from met.

*We ask for one penny more per pound. We ask for a new code of conduct, and we ask our participation in this agreement. We don’t ask the court to cut out the contracts with these companies. We ask for this. We ask for real social responsibility in the Publix corporation.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully pressured numerous companies into paying more for tomatoes. These include McDonald’s](, Whole Foods, and Aramark](, among others. Marchers were optimistic about Publix, but many were surprised at how long it has been taking. The march ends Sunday in Lakeland, where a day-long celebration will take place. Tune in Monday for full coverage.

More WMNF coverage of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers:

Immokalee workers reach deal with Aramark

Publix refuses to negotiate with farmworker coalition

Farm workers protest Publix in Lakeland

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