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Citizens of Asheville to Publix: Expand your commitment to human rights if you want to expand into our state!

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Publix opening met with scores of protesters in North Carolinian mountain city… 

As anyone across the Southeast knows, Publix Supermarkets has turned its energy in recent years to extending its network of 1,000+ stores beyond the borders of its native Florida.  While new supermarkets are popping up in states all across the South — including Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama — Publix’s most serious courtship is surely with the state of North Carolina.  Their arrival there is being announced with a neighborly (or cautionary, depending on your perspective) message for residents of the Tar Heel state:  “We’re here to be your store.”

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But North Carolina — already a long-established established territory in the Fair Food Nation — has its own message for Publix:  If you want to be “our” store, you must commit to human rights.

Consumers in 2015 look for a company’s commitment to providing not only high-quality products, but ethical products, as well, from the fields to the factories.  As long as Publix rejects the opportunity to join the Fair Food Program — rejecting, in the process, the new gold standard for human rights in agriculture — their expansion will not be met with open arms, but with skepticism and, in many cases, protests.

Nowhere has that story played out more clearly than against the picturesque backdrop of Asheville, NC.  Back in March of 2014, whispers of a new Publix location had just been confirmed in the mountain town when farmworkers and allies were heading out from Immokalee for the Now is the Time Tour.  In an admirably proactive move, citizens of Asheville invited the Tour to swing through and organized a lively protest of over 50 residents outside of the future site of Publix to demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that North Carolina was a Fair Food state:

This past weekend, the town’s promised Publix had its grand opening — and, also as promised, Ashevillians came out in scores to picket the new store.  Joined by a crew from Immokalee, dozens upon dozens of students, people of faith and other residents showed up for not one, but two, colorful protests outside of Publix — the first last Wednesday for the store’s first opening hours, and another even larger picket on Saturday afternoon.  Here below is a report from the weekend, hot off the presses from the Alliance for Fair Food crew who only just returned from North Carolina:

Our time in Asheville began bright and early Wednesday morning, as a stalwart group of local allies joined CIW member, Julia de la Cruz, outside the 7 am Publix grand opening. Carrying banners, flags, and flyers, we positioned ourselves among construction cones and piles of dirt, somewhere alongside the larger-than-life inflatable green grocery bag heralding the presence of Asheville’s newest supermarket.  

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As the inaugural customers turned into the parking lot, many of them stopped to ask about the campaign, expressing dismay over Publix’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program.  Local residents made sure to deliver a letter to the new manager, explaining that Asheville consumers would continue to organize alongside the CIW until Publix decided to do the right thing.  Publix, of course, provided some talking points, offering up the well-worn, well-refuted ‘labor dispute/put-in-in-the-price’ combo response that they so often give to Florida residents.

The rest of the day was spent in the classroom, sharing the latest Campaign news with students and professors at Warren Wilson College.  On campus later that evening, students and Asheville community members gathered for a screening of Food Chains.  The closing credits were met with robust applause and — after a wave of questions about both the expansion of the Fair Food Program into North Carolina and Publix’s confounding refusal to be part of the transformation in Florida’s fields — all the movie-goers committed to taking action.

We returned to Publix on Saturday, this time with 60 allies from all over Asheville, including members of Nuestro Centro, COLA, the Western North Carolina Workers Center, and buses of students from Warren Wilson College.  This time around, we visited Publix in true Campaign for Fair Food fashion: a high-energy picket full of art, accompanied by chants for justice over the beat of a tomato bucket drum.  

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Members of the community delegation to store management took with them a printed response to Publix’s misinformation about the Fair Food Program.  CIW’s Julia de la Cruz explained that the Program has never been a labor dispute, but is instead an unprecedented collaboration between growers, farmworkers and major retail buyers — and that the penny is, in fact, in the price (a point the CIW first published back in 2011, which Publix has readily ignored).  

At the protest, 15-year Asheville resident expressed his astonishment at Publix’s resistance to the FFP, saying that he and many others wouldn’t be visiting the new store until they saw a change.  His sentiment was shared by one of the many Warren Wilson students who joined the delegation, one of whom shared that although she’d only just learned of the Publix campaign after seeing Food Chains, she felt fully committed to standing up for farmworker justice. 

The question voiced by so many as we wrapped up the picket was, “What’s next?”  It perfectly captured what we felt the entire time we were in Asheville: the energy and excitement of a community ready to take up the Fair Food banner in the Publix campaign.  In the words of the day’s final chant, “we’ll be back!”

And that’s not all!  The protests that accompanied Publix’s new store were not overlooked by local press.  First up, ABC News sent their camera crew out to cover the protest on Saturday:

The local paper of record, the Asheville Citizen-Times, also came out to hear about why exactly the town’s residents were protesting in front of their newest supermarket:

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Farm workers protest at Asheville Publix

April 30, 2015

As the new Publix grocery store filled up with shoppers on its first day open in Ashevillle, a small group of protesters stood on a hill near the store.

They held signs with phrases such as “Publix profits from farm-worker poverty,” and “Publix: Where shopping is oppression.”

IMG_9538_smThe group consisted of members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization advocating for social responsibility and against human trafficking and gender-based violence at work.

The group’s Fair Food Program is a partnership among farmers, farm workers and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.

Participating buyers pay a Fair Food premium which tomato growers pass on to workers as a line-item bonus on their regular paychecks.

“We’re here because we know that Publix is opening its first store here in Asheville and is continuing to expand into the area,” de la Cruz said. […]

[…]  The CIW said that Publix has an opportunity to help improve wages and working conditions by implementing a code of conduct in their supply chain, and to pay one cent more per pound for tomatoes picked.

“Yet they fail to take initiative by coming up with the excuse that they do not get involved in labor disputes,” according to a group statement.

Needless to say, the CIW’s time in Asheville was an exciting visit that energized the growing base of Fair Food allies in the Tar Heel state.  As Publix marched out the same old excuses that they use in Florida for failing to join the Fair Food Program, their newest neighbors in North Carolina doubled down on their commitment to holding Publix accountable for their decisions, vowing to turn up the heat in the state’s Publix campaign throughout the summer.  

We look forward to spending more time with our ever-energetic Asheville friends, and echo their final sentiment to the expanding Florida chain:  We’ll be meeting again, Publix!

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National student boycott against Wendy’s picks up major steam!

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