Immokalee workers protest Publix in Lakeland

04/19/10 Kelly Benjamin & Seán Kinane
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As WMNF reported Friday, over the weekend, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers marched from downtown Tampa to the Publix Supermarket headquarters in Lakeland as part of their "Campaign for Fair Food."

They are calling on Publix to pay one penny more per pound to tomato pickers, and to issue a statement condemning slavery in the agricultural fields of Immokalee where several cases have come to light in the past few years.

On Saturday, farmworkers and supporters rallied outside the Publix corporate offices in Lakeland.

*Publix, shame on you. Farmworkers are people, too. …*

From the back of a tomato truck outside the [Publix] headquarters on Saturday, Bishop Timothy Wenski, from the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, addressed the marchers.

In ten years, you have seen results. McDonald’s did not want to listen to you; now they do. Burger King did not want to listen to you; now they do. Subway did not want to listen to you; now they do. And Publix, one day, will also listen to you.

On Sunday, despite the rain, a few hundred people continued marching into downtown Lakeland, where a rally was held at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

Q. Why is it important for this event to happen today?

It has to happen. When you have slavery still present in this country, and it is; when you have just insidious economic oppression, and underpaying, and low wages going on; when you have poor conditions; when you have these children that we see out here, growing up in poor conditions—that has to stop. And so this type of movement is a realization on the part of people that that has to stop. And that means bringing attention to the general public that there are companies, that there are corporations, that permit this type of oppression to happen.

Q. And why is this an important movement for Christians?

This is a central movement for Christians if we are serious and meaningful about following the life of a person in Jesus of Nazareth that challenged the status quo, that challenged authority, that talked about oppression, that talked about injustice, that talked about economic exploitation, all of these things. We cannot follow this person unless we take up the mantle—take up the cross, as it were—and do the same thing in today’s world. And so when we see violence, when we see this type of economic exploitation, when we see this type of blatant racism going on, we have no choice but to be involved.

That was minister Ken Brown, who traveled from New Haven, Conn., to attend the march. Also at the rally: television actor Gloria Reuben, from NBC’s ER..

We all know that there are a lot of people in this country who don’t think twice when they go to the grocery store to buy produce, or when they order a salad in a restaurant, or when they ask for extra tomatoes on their burger when they’re going through fast food. You know, we don’t think twice sometimes about where that food comes from, or the individual farmworker who has harvested that food, and what his or her life is like, and what the life of their family is like, and of their communities. But this weekend, the rallies, the marches, all of you, you have brought a spotlight to that issue. You have brought a spotlight to the challenges that farmworkers are going through. You have brought a spotlight to the fact that slavery is still alive—and it still, does still exist, very much still exist, here in the United States.

WMNF’s Kelly Benjamin also spoke to a Publix spokesperson at the Lakeland event.

Q. The farmworkers are asking for a raise of one penny per pound of tomatoes picked. Is Publix willing to give that raise?

We are willing to pay whatever the going rate for the tomatoes are. So if the farmworkers raise the wage, the price by five or ten cents, we would be willing to pay that. But we can’t pay associates that don’t work for us. You know, we can pay for commodities and goods, but we can’t pay for workers that don’t work for us. So we’re going to pay whatever the going rate is. And whatever that going rate is, we are more than happy to pay that. But it has to go through whatever the appropriate channel would be.

Q. The Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers has also had campaigns against Burger King, and McDonald’s, and Taco Bell, who have all come to agreements with the farmworkers. Do you foresee Publix coming to a similar agreement?

I think what you can expect from Publix is what you currently see. We’re advocating that the workers come together with the farmers, and come to an immediate resolution. And really, just raising awareness of the issues with government and officials, so that their concerns can be heard.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

More WMNF coverage of the Immokalee Workers Coalition:

Coalition of Immokalee Workers kicks off march to Lakeland

Farmworkers march for justice

Modern slavery exhibit At University of Tampa

Immokalee workers reach deal with Aramark

Publix refuses to negotiate with farmworker coalition

200 CIW farm workers and allies protest Publix

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