Two weeks, now, have passed since consumers across the country began calling on McDonald’s to work with the CIW to address sub-poverty wages and sweatshop conditions in its tomato supply chain. What have we learned in the course of the past two weeks?
- McDonald’s is refusing to work with the CIW to address sub-poverty wages and substandard working conditions in Florida’s tomato fields;
- Instead, McDonald’s has announced its intention to purchase tomatoes only from growers certified by the newly formed, grower-dominated, farm labor accountability initiative called “SAFE”;
- “SAFE” (Socially Accountable Farm Employers) is described as an independent initiative of the Florida agricultural industry, one coincidentally formed at exactly the same time McDonald’s came under fire for labor conditions in its Florida tomato supply chain;
- “SAFE” is the newest client of CBR Public Relations, a public relations firm that specializes in “activist response management,” according to its website, www.cbrpr.com;
- CBR Public Relations lists McDonald’s as one of its star clients;
- “SAFE” counts only two public participants at this point, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA);
- The FFVA is Florida’s largest and most influential agricultural employers’ lobby with a staunchly anti-labor record in Tallahassee;
- The RCMA is an excellent child care agency and is the FFVA’s favorite charity, receiving large annual donations from the agricultural lobby and having the FFVA’s vice president serve as the President of the RCMA Board of Directors for many years;
- The Executive Director of the RCMA told the press that “as far as she knows, no farmworkers were involved in the writing,” of the SAFE code of conduct.
Before we look more closely at these new facts, a brief recap of the events of the past two weeks is in order.
As the CIW’s call went out Thanksgiving week, the press picked up the story and asked McDonald’s representatives how the company planned to respond. McDonald’s answered by announcing that it would partner with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the state’s leading agribusiness lobby, through a brand new initiative called “SAFE,” to help raise labor standards in Florida’s tomato fields.
Sounded reasonable enough… right? Though McDonald’s declined the CIW’s invitation to follow Taco Bell’s lead and expand the gains established in the ground-breaking Yum Brands agreement, the company would still be taking action to address labor abuses in its tomato supply chain.
But upon closer inspection, the hamburger giant’s decision to be the first major buyer to partner with “SAFE” started to seem a little murky.
Instead of working with the CIW — the farmworker organization, whose members are actually affected by the abuses McDonald’s sought to address, with a proven model through the Yum Brands agreement already benefiting workers – McDonald’s was choosing to work with an unproven, unknown, employer-led initiative that had been public for less than a month. Indeed, the only information available on SAFE was through a splashy new website, www.safeagemployer.org, which directs visitors to a public relations firm, CBR Public Relations, when you click on “CONTACT SAFE”.
According to the Council of Public Relations Firms, CBR specializes in “media relations and crisis management.” What does “crisis management” have to do with socially accountable labor practices? Suddenly, “SAFE” started to look like it had more to do with public relations than labor relations.
This new information begged the question: Was McDonald’s being straight with its customers when it says that it is dedicated to the highest standards of social accountability in the purchasing of its tomatoes?
Well, it’s only been two weeks, but we’ve learned a lot. We have our opinion, but as a consumer, ultimately, you have to make the call.
And to help you make that call, here below is a little more information on the major players that have suddenly populated this increasingly crowded stage:
Who is CBR Public Relations?
We have learned that CBR is a firm that “specializes in media relations and crisis management” (click here for link).
Or, in CBR’s own words, “activist response management” (http://www.cbrpr.com/web/retail.shtml.
And according to their site, CBR has quite a bit of experience in this highly specialized field, boasting, “In our 16+ years in this industry, there’s not a lot we’ve missed. We’ve successfully handled: Buckshot in beef steaks, beachside gas spills, needles in apples, assaults in malls…” (http://www.cbrpr.com/web/retail.shtmlYou name the crisis, CBR has helped their clients manage the media firestorm that ensues.
And who is listed as one of CBR’s star clients? Why, McDonald’s, interestingly enough. In fact, McDonald’s awarded CBR its coveted “National Best Bets Award” in 2001 for excellence in public relations.
Who is the FFVA?
A quick look at the FFVA’s 2004 Annual Reportprovides valuable insight into this important institution’s role in Florida agriculture, the state’s second largest industry after tourism.
The FFVA is a membership organization of Florida fruit and vegetable growers that provides services crucial to its members’ economic well-being. First among those services is “Communication and Government Relations” – also known as media relations and lobbying.
Lobbying, of course, means working to limit government regulation of the industry. Paul Orsenigo, a member grower quoted in the 2004 report, states, “It seems we spend more time watching over our operations and complying with regulations than we do actually growing crops. It’s the nature of what we do now with all the government regulations.”
The FFVA also attends to its members’ labor needs, again with a focus on lobbying, “helping growers meet labor needs while keeping costs down.” As Everett Lukonen, another member grower quoted in the report confirms, “Florida agriculture has got to manage labor costs if it’s going to compete.”
So, first and foremost, the FFVA is the lobbying arm of the state’s agricultural industry, its mission to limit government regulation and keep labor costs down. And by all indications, the FFVA does its job very well.
According to the Palm Beach Post — in an article detailing the death of a bill to protect pesticide workers due, in part, to the FFVA’s opposition— the FFVA is the state’s “largest pool of agricultural donors” to the Florida legislature. The article goes on to say that, when the FFVA “recently held its annual convention at the Ritz-Carlton… the governor and the chairs of the House and Senate agricultural committees all made appearances.”
Not only does the FFVA’s financial clout convey the growers’ lobby power, but the Florida legislature is unusually stocked with natural allies of agriculture, themselves no friends of government oversight of the industry. According to the same Palm Beach Post report (“Farmers make up powerful committee”), “Half the 14 members of the House Agriculture Committee are farmers or have worked in agriculture. Combined, they have raked in nearly $480,000 in campaign contributions from agribusiness. The other seven members — who have no ties to agriculture — have received a cumulative $64,000.” Among those legislators is Marty Bowen, R-Winter Haven, who, “a wealthy citrus heiress who chairs the House Agricultural Committee, is also a grower whose company has been accused of violating farm-worker labor laws.”
Indeed, its seems that the FFVA’s message is heard loud and clear in Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee. That same 2003 Palm Beach Post story reported that in her speech accepting the FFVA’s Lawmaker of the Year Award, State Senator Nancy Argenziano, Republican from Crystal River and Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, declared, “The essence of freedom is the limitation of government.”
The FFVA is one partner — the senior partner, by all indications — in the new farm labor accountability project known as “SAFE”, a project with the stated goal of raising the standards for how Florida growers manage their labor, and of strictly enforcing those new standards so that companies like McDonald’s can rest assured that those new, higher standards are being met.
Who is the Redlands Christian Migrant Association?
The RCMA describes its mission as:
- Provide quality child care.
- Provide children and their families with support services.
- Provide educational opportunities and improve the health and general welfare of children and their families.
- Involve parents in the educational process and in public policy decisions affecting their children and families.
- Increase public awareness of the lifestyle of migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
- Provide opportunities and encourage the professional development of staff hired from the farmworker and other communities served.” http://www.rcma.org
However, RCMA not only provides excellent childcare and survival needs for hard-working farmworkers and their families, RCMA also appears to be the FFVA’s favorite charity. According to a press release issued by the FFVA in 2003 following a charity benefit at the FFVA’s annual convention: “A live auction and a silent auction raised approximately $40,000 for the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) and a group of generous donors who pledged $1,000 apiece raised an additional $31,000. The total of $71,000 was matched by federal and state funds at a rate of $16 to $1, bringing the total to over $1 million…”http://www.ffva.com/newsroom/nw71.htm
The donation was greatly appreciated. “It’s just mind-boggling,” said RCMA Executive Director Barbara Mainster. “FFVA has always supported us, but now we feel like they’ve adopted us!”
The FFVA makes large annual donations to the RCMA. And for many years, the vice president and general manager of the FFVA – George F. Sorn, 2002 inductee into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame — served as President of the RCMA Board of Directors.
In an interview with Tampa radio station WMNF about the code of conduct drafted by the newly-minted “SAFE”, Barbara Mainster, Executive Director of the RCMA, said, “as far as she knows, no farmworkers were involved in writing the code.” http://www.wmnf.org/programming/news.php?ReportId=2591
Conclusion… So there you have it. Being a consumer means making informed choices. Sometimes that choice is between high quality and low prices, and sometimes it’s between real social responsibility and public relations charades designed to give the appearance of respect for labor while keeping workers harmlessly on the sidelines.
An article entitled “Flak Attack” from the Center for Media and Democracy and their publication, “PR Watch,” provides a useful perspective for the events of the past two weeks (http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1999Q4/index.html:
“During the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia, one of her closest advisors was field marshall Grigori Potemkin, who used numerous wiles to build her image. When she toured the countryside with foreign dignitaries, he arranged to have fake villages built in advance of her visits so as to create an illusion of prosperity. Since that time, the term “Potemkin village” has become a metaphor for things that look elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lack substance.”
The PR Watch piece concludes, “The world does not need more facades. We need real progress, and real activism in order to attain it.”
Which brings us to perhaps the single most important lesson of the past two weeks. In the November press release announcing the creation of SAFE, Lisa Lochridge of CBR declared:
“Social responsibility is not an option. Today’s consumers insist on it.”
Ms. Lochridge’s words were to prove prophetic – unintentionally prophetic, maybe, but prophetic nonetheless. While her words were the opening salvo in what now appears to be a well-orchestrated public relations campaign to sell the grower-dominated initiative to the public as a legitimate alternative to working with the CIW for substantive change, the past two weeks have made one thing crystal clear: the public isn’t buying it.
Over the past two weeks, thousands upon thousands of consumers have emailed, called, and written to McDonald’s to insist that the hamburger giant take real measures to clean up labor abuses in its supply chain. What’s more, dozens of the key institutional allies so important in the successful Taco Bell Boycott – from the National Council of Churches to the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights – have renewed their support for the CIW’s campaign. Their support has helped amplify our voice so that tens of millions of consumers across the globe could hear the cry for economic justice from Immokalee.
Despite all the public relations double talk, consumers have told McDonald’s, loud and clear, that social responsibility is in fact not an option – it’s a necessity.
That is lesson Number One.
Thanks – Coalition of Immokalee Workers