¡No Quiero Taco Bell!
by David Bacon
IMMOKALEE, FL (5/22/02) -- If a small union of Florida farm workers has its way, the slogan No Quiero Taco Bell will replace the chihuahua's nasal appeal, Yo Quiero Taco Bell, on college campuses around the country. For almost a decade, the campus anti-sweatshop movement has exposed the working conditions that go into big-label sportswear worn by American youth. But this time, instead of advocating for workers in countries often half a world away, tomato pickers in the Everglades are urging young people to look much closer to home.
"We've forged an alliance with students, and they're some of the largest consumers of fast food tacos and chalupas," says Lucas Benitez a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. "This is really no different from the conditions of Nike workers in Asia. The only difference is that we are here."
The offending taco ingredients are the tomatoes. Florida workers get 40-45¢ for filling a 32-pound bucket, working for a network of growers whose main customer is the fast food giant. Pickers would like to see Taco Bell pay growers an additional penny a pound. If the penny were passed on to the workers, it would virtually double their wages. At the cash register, consumers would hardly see the difference.
Taco Bell, a susbsidiary of Tricon Corp., has $5.2 billion in sales annually, a quarter of its parent corporation's gross receipts. "Their tremendous revenues are based on cheap ingredients, including cheap tomatoes picked at sub-poverty wages. The company should take responsibility for the conditions under which the tomatoes for their chalupas and their tacos are grown and harvested," says Benitez. "We are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our poverty."
Immokalee is a farmworker community in southwest Florida, in the middle of the Everglades. In some ways, it's more a labor reserve than a town, an unincorporated area where the population nearly doubles to 30,000 people during the harvest season. "Every day here, thousands of people wake up at 4:00 in the morning to beg for a day's work in the central parking lot in town," Benitez says. "And every Friday, they get checks from three or four different companies. No company has a fixed workforce. There are only the changing faces of Immokalee workers picking, planting and pulling plastic every day."
Three decades ago, when Edward R. Murrow produced the celebrated expose, Harvest of Shame, Florida's tomato pickers were African-Americans and Black immigrants from the Caribbean. While Haitians still make up a significant percentage of that workforce today, most Immokalee residents are now Mexican and Guatemalan.
hat hasn't changed from the days of Murrow's documentary are the conditions in which people live and work. According to a US Department of Labor report to Congress last year, farm workers everywhere in the US are at the bottom of the economic heap. "The National Agricultural Workers Survey paints a very grim picture of conditions under which farmworkers live and work," it concluded. "Low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, significant periods of un- and underemployment, and low utilization of safety net programs all add up to a labor force in significant economic distress."
But if farm workers have it bad in general, Florida pickers have it worse. Over the years, stories come out of the state of workers held prisoner in labor camps. During the past five years the CIW has handed the state Department of Justice documentation of three slavery operations. One southwest Florida employer held over 400 people in bondage, forcing them to work 10-12 hour days, six days a week, for as little as $20. They were watched by armed guards in both the fields and camps. In 1997 he was sentenced to fifteen years in Federal prison. Another labor contractor is currently serving three years for having held 30 other workers in two trailers in a swamp near Immokalee. The CIW's anti-slavery program is currently investigating a third case.
Florida is a special case partly because it's in the south. "Our politicians here are tied to agribusiness and therefore not interested in promoting laws to improve the state of workers," Benitez explains.
But the south today is not only an area of sparse unions and low wages. It is also an area where grassroots organizing projects are spreading rapidly. Black Workers for Justice is organizing public workers in the city of Durham, North Carolina. In Miami, the Miami Workers Center and UNITE for Dignity, a project of the garment workers' union, use innovative community-based organizing tactics. In Charleston, the almost all-Black longshore union recently won the freedom of five of its most active members, after they were arrested in an effort to break their union on the docks. "In some ways, the South's anti-labor atmosphere actually made these new aggressive organizing tactics necessary to win even the most modest changes," Benitez says.
And one of the important new realities in the south today is a dramatic shift in population. In some ways, the South has more in common today with 21st century Los Angeles than it does with 1960s Montgomery. African-Americans still make up the majority of its lowest-paid workers, but there's a new element in the Southern reality -- the rapid and widespread influx of immigrants, who share that position at the bottom of the economy.
The immigrant status of the Immokalee workforce is an advantage to CIW organizers, who use the popular education techniques which have become part of the culture of social justice movements in Central America and the Caribbean. By using the organizing traditions workers bring with them from their countries of origin, the union has found a way of organizing people who, in the eyes of much of the labor movement, are considered almost unorganizeable. While many workers can't read, movies, popular theater, cartoons and drawings enable them, not just to become more aware of their situation, but to participate actively in changing it.
This spring the CIW took two busloads of its members on a Taco Bell Truth Tour, which culminated in a demonstration of 2000 workers and supporters outside the company's blue glass office tower in California's Orange County. Taco Bell maintains that it isn't responsible for the conditions of tomato pickers since it doesn't employ them directly. Nevertheless, company representatives met with Benitez and other CIW activists.
In a statement after the meeting, Laurie Gannon, Taco Bell spokesperson, said that "we allowed them to share their views, and they allowed us to clarify some of their statements. It's still too early to tell what will happen because we're still talking about this."
The growers, however, seem less open to discussions, and haven't agreed to talk yet. Six L's Packing Company, which supplies most of the Taco Bell tomatoes, is a huge company itself, with operations in Puerto Rico and Mexico as well as along the east coast.
The coalition isn't waiting for an agreement with the companies to change conditions on the ground, and through work stoppages and hunger strikes has already forced wage increases from 13-25% in the last four years. Extreme abuse, such as debt bondage and slavery, have become much rarer. "Hopefully we've contributed to creating a stronger movement for all workers in the South, not just ourselves," Benitez concludes.
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