Trillium News

From Factories to the Fields(Archive)

Life is hard for field worker, Romeo Ramirez. Ramirez is one of the workers in Immokalee, Florida, who picks tomatoes that end up at Taco Bell.
Field workers make 40 to 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. To make $50 a day, a field worker must pick two tons of tomatoes. Ramirez told the Naples Daily News that, since coming to the U.S. in 1996, he earned $58 only on his best day. On his worst day, he earned only $8.50.
When he is not working, Ramirez volunteers for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Coalition has launched a consumer boycott of Taco Bell, one of the largest U.S. purchasers of fresh tomatoes. The boycott is aimed at pressing Taco Bell to ensure that the workers, such as Romeo Ramirez, who pick its tomatoes earn a living wage. “Let Freedom Ring…Boycott the Bell” announce the Coalition’s leaflets and posters. The Coalition is leading a “Truth Tour” of campuses, churches and communities from Florida to Taco Bell’s headquarters in Irvine, California.
Ramirez’s struggle and that of its fellow farm workers in Florida has started a campaign that is starting to shake Taco Bell and its parent company, Tricon. It is also sparking a broader movement to advocate for all farm workers that supply the major U.S. fast food chains: Burger King (a Diageo subsidiary), McDonald’s, Tricon and Wendy’s. The anti-sweatshop campaign is spreading its focus beyond factories to include farm workers.
Facts on Farm Workers
Farm workers in the United States face huge obstacles. When Congress enacted labor laws such as the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Standards Act, it specifically excluded farm workers. Consequently, U.S. farm workers lack the legal protections to organize and engage in collective bargaining. They also are exempt from the federal minimum wage law.
The National Agricultural Workers Survey published by the U.S. Department of Labor paints a grim picture of the conditions under which U.S. farm workers live and work. The U.S. Labor Department has found in general that:
· Farm worker median annual income is between $5,000 to $7,500
· Farm workers receive no overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid holidays or vacation, pension or legal protection to organize and join unions
· Farm worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline
· Exclusion from legal protections have hurt farm workers
Agricultural industry trends have also eroded farm worker bargaining power. Long gone are the days when small, family-owned farms supplied local stores with seasonal produce. Today, large suppliers with operations stretching across several states sell produce to fast food giants like McDonald’s, Tricon and Burger King. The bargaining power of these major corporations helps drive down the prices paid to the suppliers. The suppliers, in turn, have the power to keep down the wages of their largely unorganized workers.
Little wonder that the tomato pickers of Immokalee are working today for same nominal wages they earned 20 years ago.
Changing the Agricultural Industry
In his book “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser identifies the fast food companies as the key to changing the agricultural industry.
Schlosser notes the key weakness of the fast food giants: their fierce competition for consumers:
[These] companies must obey the demands of one group – consumers – whom they eagerly flatter and pursue….The slightest drop in a chain’s market share can cause a large decline in the value of its stock.
Connecting this weakness of the fast food industry and the industry’s power over its suppliers, Schlosser concludes:
The right pressure applied to the fast food industry in the right way could produce change faster than any act of Congress…Small increases in the cost of beef, chicken, and potatoes would raise fast food menu prices by a few pennies, if at all. The fast food chains insist that suppliers follow strict specifications regarding the sugar content, fat content, size, shape, taste, and texture of their products. The chains could just as easily enforce a strict code of conduct governing the treatment of workers, ranchers, and farmers.
In this respect, the structure of the agricultural industry is very much like the apparel and footwear industry. Agricultural suppliers increasingly depend on a few major customers that have a major investment in their brand image. Anti-sweatshop campaigners have successfully pressed footwear and apparel companies like Nike and The Gap to police the workplace conditions of their suppliers. Now farm worker rights activists are picking up on the same tactics to use with fast food companies.
A Coalition Forms
Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” has quickly become the campaign bible of farm worker rights’ organizations. One of these organizations, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is already using anti-sweatshop tactics in its campaign against the tomato supplier, Six L Packing Co. and its customer Taco Bell.
Why Taco Bell? The Coalition cites industry journal The Packer as source of the information that Taco Bell is a major client of the Immokalee-based Six L Packing Co., one of the largest fresh tomato suppliers in the United States. Six L has operations along much of the East Coast from Florida to Maryland.
Taco Bell is also vulnerable to a consumer boycott. “As Taco Bell’s target market,” stated Brian Payne of the Student/Farmworker Alliance in a Coalition-published brief, “students are in a unique position to dedicate our resources and creativity towards helping Taco Bell realize the importance of the farm workers’ role in its success and, therefore, the company’s responsibility for improving the wages and working conditions of our state’s tomato pickers.”
History highlights Tricon’s weakness. When part of PepsiCo, Taco Bell was the site of many student demonstrations from 1990 to 1996 protesting PepsiCo’s business in Burma. At Stanford University, students successfully stopped a Taco Bell from opening on campus. When PepsiCo announced its withdrawal from Burma in 1997, it was clearly a victory for the student-driven boycott.
In January 2000 and again in January 2001, the Coalition wrote Taco Bell. In those letters, the Coalition explained that Six L Packing Co. had refused for several years despite several requests including one from former President Jimmy Carter and another that included cards signed by over 2,000 Immokalee farm workers.
The Coalition also explained that, if Taco Bell were to spend just one penny more per pound of tomatoes it buys from Florida growers and the growers were to pass that extra penny on to the workers, the piece rate paid to the workers could nearly double. Since Taco Bell uses only a fraction of a pound of tomatoes in one of its tacos, the cost to the company and its customers of this higher price would be negligible.
Just like Six L Packing Co., Taco Bell ignored the Coalition’s request to meet with the workers and the growers to discuss the issue.
Faced with this rejection, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a campaign and a boycott aimed at Taco Bell.
Investors Weigh In
At the May 2001 “Empowering Democracy” conference, representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers made a powerful presentation to the gathering of corporate accountability activists. They explained the plight of the tomato pickers. They also showed a video of student activists who blocked a Taco Bell drive-in with a giant tomato puppet named “Tomatotron.’
At “Empowering Democracy” were representatives of Trillium Asset Management and members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. After the conference, Trillium Asset Management took the initiative to draft a letter from religious investors and social investment firms to Taco Bell. In the letter dated November 2001, the investors urged Tricon, the parent company of Taco Bell, to:
· Open a dialogue with the growers, the tomato pickers, and investors;
· Pay a fractionally higher price for its tomatoes with the total increase passed on to the tomato workers in the form of higher wages;
· Draft a code of conduct for Tricon’s tomato suppliers that includes provisions requiring safe and healthy work conditions, the payment of a sustainable living wage, and respect for the right to organize.
When this letter also went unanswered, Trillium Asset Management joined with the Center for Reflection, Education and Action and the United Church of Christ Pension Board in filing a shareholder resolution at Tricon.
Once the resolution was filed, Tricon began to engage its shareholders in a dialogue regarding Six L Packing Co. and the larger question of what workplace standards Tricon should require of its suppliers. However, Tricon has yet to meet the Immokalee workers.
Facing the Future
Tricon is still in its early stages of addressing this issue. But it is already clear that the fast food companies are facing a new – and potent – campaign that will require them to set workplace standards for their supply chain.
The implications are huge. The fast food companies’ supply chains include farm workers and meat packers who are routinely denied their rights and who toil under appalling conditions for pitiful wages. This new campaign, joining tomato pickers with concerned investors, may well prove to be just the lever that shifts the industry.