Farmworkers fight McDonald’s over wages

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IMMOKALEE, Fla. (AP) – The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ one-story office on Main Street is easy to miss, but its dusty mural-covered walls belie a media savvy and organizing muscle rarely seen these days in small-town America.

The southwest Florida group came to prominence by championing a series of farmworker abuse cases in the 1990s and by organizing a four-year boycott of Taco Bell that ended in 2005 after the company agreed to pay Florida farmworkers an extra penny a pound for its tomatoes.

Now it has set its sights on the entire fast-food industry, starting with the giant of giants, the McDonald’s Corp. The coalition wants McDonald’s to help increase wages and give workers a say in improving their working conditions.

“We workers need a voice in an industry that has always seen us as a machine,” said coalition co-founder, Lucas Benitez, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico and spent years working as a tomato picker.

The fight could have a national impact on both prices – Florida produces 90 percent of the nation’s domestic winter tomato crop – and farm labor practices nationwide.

University of California economics professor and labor expert Paul Ortiz said the coalition has helped reinvigorate the farmworker movement, calling Florida “the new proving ground” for cooperative action. He likened the coalition’s campaigns to the anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990s, which prompted clothing companies to monitor work conditions in factories they contracted at home and abroad.

But McDonald’s also learned a few lessons from the coalition’s fight with Taco Bell, a unit of fast-food rival Yum Brands, and isn’t about to let itself be portrayed as the corporate Goliath against the coalition’s David.

It has gone on the offensive, promoting its own plan to ensure low-cost housing and fair wages for tomato pickers. It has also hired a research group run by a Roman Catholic nun to analyze conditions in the fields.

“In the end, we think that the (coalition) hasn’t done enough,” said John Hayes, senior director for McDonald’s U.S. supply chain.

Tomato farming is tough work for both the pickers and the growers. A University of Florida study showed that neither the workers’ wages nor the wholesale price of tomatoes has risen for 30 years when adjusted for inflation.

The fastest Immokalee pickers can earn about $75 a day for eight hours of back-wrenching toil, but most earn much less – though exact numbers are difficult to come by. Pickers can go days without work, and get neither sick leave nor overtime.

Since the coalition set its sights on McDonald’s, the company helped organize the grower-backed Socially Accountable Farm Employers association, known as SAFE, and outlined its own corporate proposal for even stricter standards.

The company’s plan calls for the voluntary creation of more low-cost housing, which some growers already offer for as little as $14 a week, and placing the workers on growers’ payrolls so independent hiring contractors can’t skim off their earnings.

“Our program is far more comprehensive. It’s about driving positive long-term sustainable change in an industry that by own admission has long needed change,” Hayes said.

Good stuff, agrees the coalition, except most of that is already standard for big growers and required by law.

“It’s like the father who gives his son the same shirt each Christmas but in new wrapping paper,” Benitez said.

The coalition says some McDonald’s growers might be able to beat the Taco Bell deal, but the group’s goal is a wage increase across the board – a penny more per pound or an amount negotiated between workers, restaurant chains such as McDonald’s and the farmers.

But farmers say they are stuck in the middle between their workers and the fast-food restaurants. They can’t increase wages without an agreement with the restaurants because that would drive up prices and cause the eateries to buy their tomatoes from foreign companies.

Taco Bell, which buys about 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes each year, extolls its deal with the coalition and said it still buys the same number of tomatoes from the region, but spokesman Robert Poetsch would not release specific information about its Florida tomato supply.

“A penny more per pound doesn’t sound like a lot, but in corporate America, pennies is what people make careers out of,” said Jay Taylor, co-owner with his brother of Taylor & Fulton Farms.

Taylor, whose rugged, preppy attire gives the air of someone more likely to have just stepped off a sailboat than a farm, has become the informal spokesman for Florida’s farming industry and by extension, McDonald’s counter-campaign.

Across his fields, the thump of tomatoes hitting the plastic pails echoes as crouched workers stream down row after row, expertly plucking the correct size of fruit and tossing them into the pails.

Many return each year and follow the harvest season to his fields in north Florida and Virginia because they say they are treated better there than by many growers.

Instead of increasing wages, Taylor says he looks for other ways to improve conditions for his workers. He has built housing near several of his farms and has plans to build affordable housing inside Immokalee’s town limits so workers will have access to community services. He’s now considering hiring an ombudsman on the farm to serve as a go between for him and his employees.

Philip Martin, an economist at University of California, Davis, says there’s a deeper issue at play besides just wages – it’s about giving farmworkers more power nationally. Tomato pickers are transient and many are here illegally, making a union drive unlikely. Yet the recent visit by the AFL-CIO signaled the Immokalee campaign is gaining attention from national labor leaders as well.

“You start with tomatoes, then you’re at onions,” he said. “Growers are afraid that it could spread.”

The coalition says it understands the precarious position of farmers, and that’s why it’s targeting companies like McDonald’s. It’s counting on public opinion again being enough to force the company’s hand.

The coalition’s victory over Taco Bell in March 2005 came after students got than 20 colleges to kick the restaurant off campus.

“Those who have the last word aren’t McDonald’s or us. It’s the consumers,” Benitez said.

The coalition already has the support of dozens of religious groups across the country and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. At its headquarters, farmworkers frequently huddle side-by-side with college-educated activists and students.

The coalition’s strategy isn’t new, but it appears to be gaining steam. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio, won worker protections from Campbell Soup Co. in the 1980s, and in 2004 got the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. in North Carolina to pay growers more for cucumbers, passing the increase along to the workers.

Still, Ruth Rosenbaum, the nun who runs the Center for Reflection, Education and Action Inc., which is conducting the study for McDonald’s, questioned the company-by-company approach.

“We want to change the entire industry,” said Rosenbaum, who strongly supported the Taco Bell campaign. “When you do it across the industry, then there is no competitive advantage for doing the wrong thing.”

The key is to reach a balance that goes beyond a short-term gain, said Ortiz, the University of California economist.

“Initially, people will be on their best behavior all across the board. The challenge is what happens tomorrow, after the excitement goes away,” he said.

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