A Reason to Celebrate(A)
One of the questions I hear most frequently when I give a talk about socially responsible investing is, “What about boycotts? Do they work?” My response is always the same. Shop as ethically as you can, but don’t count on your purchasing decisions having an impact unless (a) you are one of many persons who not only boycott a company, but also tell it why, and how much spending you did at one of their competitors, and (b) you manage to persuade some institutional buyers to do the same.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has just called off one of the most successful boycotts in recent memory, dubbed “Boot the Bell” – Taco Bell, that is, a subsidiary of YUM! Brands. The CIW represents 2,500-plus itinerant workers of mostly Mexican and Guatemalan origin who labor in the tomato and citrus fields of Florida (where Immokalee is) and the East Coast. Formed in 1993, CIW spent its first few years trying to get wages back up to the pre-1980 levels to which they’d fallen, which still didn’t crack the poverty line. They also have achieved some success in contesting cases of virtual slavery in the fields.
Under any circumstances, field work is brutal on the body, mind and heart. Workers put in ten to twelve-hour days, without health insurance, vacation, sick pay, or the right to organize. The prevailing wages the CIW was contesting were 40-45¢ per 32-pound bucket; at that rate, one has to fill nearly two tons of tomatoes per day to earn about $50.00. Given this big picture, the boycott’s core demand was exceedingly modest — a penny-per-pound raise – but it would lift workers above the poverty line, on paper at least.
“Boot the Bell” was the first-ever farm worker boycott of a major fast-food company. Its tactics included hunger strikes, media tours, marches, protests, and celebrity endorsements. The pressure was tangible. Laborers spoke up at the YUM! Brands annual stockholder meeting in Louisville, Kentucky several years in a row, where allies like Trillium had co-sponsored shareholder proposals that pressed for YUM! to address the systemic social and environmental sustainability challenges embedded in its contractor relationships; the resolutions twice attracted around 40% of the vote. The Student/Farmworker Alliance persuaded 21 universities nationwide to either terminate or deny Taco Bell contracts worth millions of dollars. And in 2003, three CIW members received the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, the first one given to an American group by the RFK Center for Human Rights in its 20 years of existence.
Finally, the tipping point was reached. In March 2005, the YUM! Brands conceded to pay an additional penny per pound. Taco Bell president Emil Brolick stated, “We recognize that Florida tomato workers do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as employees in other industries, and there is a need for reform. We have indicated that any solution must be industry-wide, as our company simply does not have the clout alone to solve the issues raised by the CIW, but we are willing to play a leadership role within our industry to be part of the solution.” In addition, YUM! pledged to “aid in efforts at the state level to seek new laws that better protect all Florida tomato farmworkers.”
As the apparel and footwear companies are doing, the retail food and agricultural sectors must take responsibility for their impact on workers’ lives. The success of the Taco Bell boycott shows that if they don’t do it of their own initiative, others will make sure it happens anyway.