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December 12, 2001
Tomato Pickers Boycott Taco Bell for Higher Wages
    by William Baue

Borrowing a tactic from anti-sweatshop campaigns, tomato pickers seek a sustainable living wage by appealing to Taco Bell, the primary purchaser of the tomatoes they pick.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, failed in its bid yesterday to persuade local government commissioners to endorse a document that would encourage tomato growers to negotiate with field workers about their wages. CIW has decided to ratchet its efforts up to the next level: boycott Taco Bell, the largest purchaser of the region’s tomatoes.

Farmworkers such as the Florida tomato pickers can organize into a union, but they are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. In the case of CIW, the farmworkers have no legal recourse if their employers refuse to negotiate with them.

CIW has borrowed the boycott tactic from anti-sweatshop campaigns, according to Sister Ruth Rosenbaum, a social economist for the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, Inc. (CREA). Anti-sweatshop campaigns hold the corporations marketing the final products responsible for their suppliers’ factory working conditions.

CREA helped file a shareowner resolution addressing tomato pickers’ rights with Taco Bell owner Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. (ticker: YUM). Tricon formerly was a subsidiary of PepsiCo, Inc. (PEP) but was spun off in 1997.

“I don’t think it’s much different from the situation we had in terms of sweatshops . . . maybe 8 or 10 years ago,” said Sister Rosenbaum. “It’s a learning edge for companies in general to realize that workers are not just passive players in all of this . . . it’s never even been on the [companies’] horizon to think about things this way.”

Taco Bell believes the issue of field-worker compensation should be resolved between the farmers and pickers. “We do require that all of our suppliers comply with federal, state and local laws and that includes wage [laws],” said Taco Bell spokeswoman Laurie Gannon.

CIW equates their working conditions to those experienced by sweatshop workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median farmworker income ranges from $5,000 to $7,500 per year, well below the poverty threshold of $8,794, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2000. What’s more, farmworkers receive no overtime pay, health benefits, sick leave, paid vacations, or pension. And, as mentioned earlier, they are denied legal recourse if their employers refuse to negotiate with them collectively.

More than 100 demonstrations have targeted Taco Bell restaurants in the past several months. The adverse effect on sales and reputation concerns some Tricon shareowners. On behalf of these shareowners, CREA has joined forces with Trillium Asset Management, and a host of other concerned investors, to file a shareowner resolution that urges Tricon to implement a code of conduct for its tomato suppliers that addresses basic standards of worker rights.

“Essentially what you want to do when you file a resolution is to bring [the company and the workers] to dialogue,” said Sr. Rosenbaum, “so that it’s not just a question that we’re flexing our muscle as SRI investors. It’s really about bringing about change for the workers,” she continued, adding that the concerned shareowners “would have the option to withdraw [the resolution] if we think that there’s enough progress before they have to print the actual proxy.”

As of now, CIW is organizing the “Taco Bell Truth Tour,” a two-week cross-country trek from Immokelee to Taco Bell global headquarters in Irvine, California. Along the way, the caravan will stop in 15 major U.S. cities and urge supporters to boycott Taco Bell restaurants locally. The shareowner resolution expresses concern that the boycott will most likely draw support from young people aged 18-24, one of Taco Bell’s target markets.

Concerned shareowners also weigh the negative public relations resulting from the boycott against the effort needed to meet the workers’ requests. CIW is asking for a one-cent increase per pound in the price paid by Tricon to its tomato suppliers, with the increase going directly to the pickers. This measure would raise the cost per taco served by a fraction of a penny.


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