Ethel and Kerry Kennedy join protest at Publix headquarters in Lakeland where farmworkers break 6 day fast listen03/12/12 Kelly Benjamin
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On Saturday after 6 days without food, more than 60 farmworkers and supporters ended their fast for fair food outside the Publix Supermarket corporate Headquarters in Lakeland. Nearly 1,000 people marched to the fast breaking ceremony organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Publix supermarkets is the largest and fastest growing employee owned supermarket chain in the United States. They are also one of the longest hold outs from signing on to a Fair Food Agreement with Florida tomato pickers. The agreement provides one penny more per pound of tomatoes picked in the fields as well as ensures that tomato growers abide by a code of conduct assuring the health and safety of farm workers. Last month, Trader Joe's became the tenth major corporation to sign a Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Farm workers but despite repeated requests from tomato pickers for Publix to negotiate, the corporation just won't budge.
"Publix executives are refusing to recognize the humanity of the workers."
That's Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
"What we're asking is to establish an understanding and to be able to sign an agreement that will result in improving the conditions for workers. They don't even have the integrity to look at us in the eye and tell us why not, it doesn't make sense."
Publix has maintained that they are willing to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes. but spokesperson Shannon Pattan says they won't get involved with a labor dispute that they see as between farm workers and growers. and they won't pay employees of other companies directly for their labor.
"We've always encouraged our suppliers to work closely with their workforce and their workforce's representatives on any issue."
That doesn’t jive with Laura Safer Espinoza, executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council, a nonprofit that oversees the Fair Food Program.
"Publix says they will not pay any other employers employees directly as though they were being asked to pay farm workers directly. That's completely incorrect. No corporate buyer in the Fair food program pays farm workers directly, they pay their suppliers of Florida tomatoes just like they always have. Which brings us to the second misstatement: Publix spokespeople say that they'll pay the penny more for pound when it's folded into the price of tomatoes. We monitor the Fair Food program and that is precisely how many of them choose to pay the fair food premium-folded into the price."
Publix has also publicly disputes claims by the Immokalee workers that their rate of pay has not increased in over 30 years. Statements like these from Publix are causing increasing frustration for tomato pickers like Lucas Benitez, who was among those who went without food for 6 days to make his point.
“I give a challenge to Mr. Ed Crenshaw. The same way that I’m looking at you right now I’m asking Mr. Ed Crenshaw to see Publix and talk to us face to face and I dare him to say all the lies that they’ve been saying in the press to me!”
Several hundred supporters of the fasting farm workers picketed at a nearby Publix on Saturday before marching to corporate headquarters to break the fast. Among them were Ethel and Kerry Kennedy, widow and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. At a ceremony outside the Publix headquarters Kerry Kennedy addressed the crowd.
"The farm workers have fasted for justice and for truth and they have spoken truth to power, they have exposed the lies that have been told about them again and again and again. Surely, Mr. and Mr. Jenkins, if the farm workers can go without food for 6 days, you can provide shade in the fields, you can provide zero tolerance for sexual harassment, you can provide water, the right to report abuse without retribution, you can stop the slavery and you can provide a penny per pound."
The breaking of the farm workers’ fast at Publix headquarters fell on the 44th anniversary of Caesar Chavez's historic fast for migrant worker rights and breaking of bread with Robert F. Kennedy in California. Kerry Kennedy reminded the crowd of the significance of the occasion.
"Everybody here today, you will be able to look at your grandchildren and you will be able to say I did this, I was there during the time of difficulty and danger and I walked with the Immokalee workers."
After a three mile procession to the Publix headquarters, members of the clergy and the children of farm workers presented the fasters with bread to break the fast. Michael Livingston is the director of the poverty initiative for the U.S. National Council of Churches.
"Publix, you stand under the judgment of God, come to your senses, if we need to, we'll be back, we'll be back, we'll be back, we'll be back, we'll be back."