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.
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
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
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
“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.”
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.