Community organizers campaign against modern-day slavery and for fair food at Publix stores in Pinellas
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07/29/11 Andrea Lypka
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A group of protesters sings in front of a grocery store in St. Petersburg


photo by Andrea Lypka

Anti-slavery protesters and activists for fair-food took their demands to three Publix grocery stores in St. Petersburg Sunday.

For nearly a decade social justice activists have struggled to get fair wages for Florida’s tomato harvesters. They’ve tried protesting, marching and chanting in front of Publix grocery stores to get the grocery giant to pay their suppliers a penny more per pound for tomatoes. But this weekend the activists decided to use a more personal approach – to talk to managers as customers.

Heather Vega says that because of public support, some supermarket chains have started to sell what is known as fair trade coffee. She hopes stores in the Tampa Bay will consider fair trade when it comes to Florida-grown farm-fresh tomatoes.

“On the package of the fair trade coffee it basically has a description of what fair trade means. It means that workers are going to work under fair conditions and have fair wages. Well, isn’t this exactly what we are looking for?” Vega said.

Amanda Sliby from Tampa Bay Fair Food says that tomatoes are one of the major produce items grown and picked in Florida. But Publix won’t commit to the agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to extend fair food principles onto the Florida tomato industry.

“There is 9 cases of slavery in Florida today, two of them in particular were Pacific (Pacific Tomato Growers) and Six L’s, and Publix continued to buy their tomatoes. But yet they won’t commit to this agreement with CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) that says that they cut their purchases from farms where slavery is found,“ Sliby said.

Volunteers purchased tomatoes at three stores and then asked store managers to hear their message. One store manager refused to hear their concerns and called for security, while the other two managers said they would forward an official letter to the stores’ headquarters in Lakeland.

Amanda Sliby from Tampa Bay Fair Food says that they started to organize themselves a year ago in response to Publix’s refusal to dialogue with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an organization whose members are largely Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrant workers located about two and a half hours drive south of Florida. The community organizers’ goal is to raise awareness of the working conditions on tomato farms.

“And to take direct action on that by doing what we did today, by going directly to the managers of the stores, voicing our concerns and in the past we have also done marches and protests. And again, this is to keep pressure on Publix, knowing that one day they will come to the table and take the responsibility of thinking about where their products are coming from and the only way they are going to do that is when they see that there is concern in their customers,” Sliby said.

Sliby calls the mistreatment of farm workers by some supermarket chains modern day slavery.

“Hearing that slavery still exist… it is mind-blowing… It (slavery) is in the shadows, it is not something what most people know about or if they do hear about, they choose to keep it tucked away so that they don’t have a guilty conscience. Those of us who decided to take action today, we took it to heart, and we feel that since we hear about it, it is our responsibility to act on it. The only way to solve it is if we raise awareness among consumers and have corporations also take responsibility,” she said.

Heather Vega says that they will continue to pressure stores to change their policies on Fair Trade.

"We find different ways to continue with the pressure to keep sending out the message. Education is a big part of this campaign. First, we make people conscious, we let them know that this exists, then after that, you are left with the information and whit what do I do with it? So, at Tampa Bay Fair Food we are busy," she said.

We were unable to reach Publix’s spokesperson before deadline. In the past, they have said Publix will pay the market value for the goods, but that price needs to be negotiated between the workers and the growers or packers.

Previous WMNF coverage of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

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Clarification

Nice work Fair Food Fighters. However, just to quickly clarify: Pacific Tomato Growers, Six L's, and indeed about 90% of the Florida tomato industry represented by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange signed agreements to cooperatively work together with the CIW to improve conditions in the fields in late 2010. There is now an unprecedented opportunity to transform agricultural labor relations in Florida today and to provide a model for a more modern, more humane farm labor system tomorrow. This is due to the efforts of farmworkers, consumer activists, Florida tomato growers, and nine multinational fast-food and foodservice corporations who have joined in support of the CIW's Fair Food principles. Still, Publix and other supermarket industry leaders (with the sole exception of Whole Foods) have been very resistant to adopting these Fair Food principles. Without Publix paying into the penny-per-pound program and conditioning its purchases on the Fair Food principles, workers' raises are shorted and the push to improve working conditions is undermined. For more information, see: http://ciw-online.org/put_it_in_the_price.html http://ciw-online.org/watershed_moment.html http://ciw-online.org/slavery.html

consumer

This needs more public exposure. Publix should respond to the concern of its consumers.

Whole Foods ?

Thanks for the info, Catarina. But, what is "Whole Foods"? Is it a grocery store? If I wanted to support industry leaders that adopt Fair Food principles - where could I shop instead of Publix or other store chains? (also, I think I've just fallen in love with a certain Fair Food fighter! Wow!)

Love is in the fair...

Whole Foods is a grocery chain and one can be found at Dale Mabry and Hwy 275… I gave them a call and ask for the price of their regular organic tomatoes on the vine and was told 3.99lb!!! Then I gave a quick call to Publix… just down the street at Dale Mabry and Henderson and was told their regular organic tomatoes on the vine were 3.69lb!!! Sooo… It looks like that penny per pound that Whole Foods agreed to pay… is being passed on to the customer at a quarter per pound!!! Happy shopping…