Tomato harvesters, others prepare for Tampa Publix protest listen03/04/11 Kate Bradshaw
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A group of Florida tomato harvesters has lobbied the likes of McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Whole Foods in pursuit of better wages and living conditions. Now the Coalition of Immokalee workers is entrenched in a fight to get Publix Supermarkets to follow suit. They’re demonstrating near four Tampa Bay area stores, and have a massive march planned for Saturday.
Members of the coalition and numerous groups standing in solidarity gathered outside a Publix near the southern tip of St. Pete. They set up in the late morning, intending to stay until evening, chanting and waving signs at passing cars. This was one of four such gatherings in the Tampa Bay area. Kandace Vallejo is with the Student Farmworker Alliance, one of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ solidarity groups. She said they’re hoping to raise awareness for an event slated for tomorrow in Tampa.
The events aim to call on Publix to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes it purchases in Florida. This, of course, is nothing new. Nearly a year ago, the coalition and associated groups embarked on a days-long march from Downtown Tampa to Publix’s Lakeland headquarters. The workers complain that the growers that supply tomatoes to the grocer are paying them the same wages a tomato picker could have expected in 1978. Vallejo said the Publix should adhere to its own founding principles.
Still, the grocery chain has repeatedly said the matter is strictly between the growers and the labor force. Publix spokesperson Shannon Patten said the conflict has nothing to do with Publix.
Joining the green t-shirt-clad farmworkers in South St. Pete were purple shirt-wearing members of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU member Sonya Roundtree, a bus driver with Pinellas County Schools, said the union stands in solidarity with a labor force that can’t form unions.
Demonstrator Renetta Graff of Dunedin said she has seen the living and working conditions in Immokalee firsthand.
Farmworker Veronica Ramirez is a 24-year-old mother who said the long hours mean she can’t spend time with her kids. She said farm workers have to pick more than two tons of tomatoes a day in order to make the equivalent of minimum wage. Ramirez said she’s confident that Publix will eventually budge, in the same way that Subway, Aramark, and Whole Foods have.
But Publix spokesperson Shannon Patten said it’s the supplier that dictates prices to the retailer, and not the other way around. She said Publix has tried to encourage stronger communication between the two groups, to no avail.
The coalition’s success with so many other companies seems to strengthen their resolve. They won their most recent victory against the Florida Tomato Growers’ Exchange in November of last year. That group has agreed to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes and improve working conditions for those in the fields. David Strohmeyer is a snowbird from Franklin, New Hampshire, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, one of several religious groups that supports the coalition. Demonstrating along members of the coalition, SEIU and several other groups, he said, with enough consumer pressure, Publix will likely change its policy.
Saturday’s Tampa demonstrations mark the end of a road trip the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched in Boston to spread awareness of farmworker conditions in Florida’s tomato fields.