Landslide! Florida United Methodists take a stand on Fair Food, Publix in historic vote!

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After years of organizing, Florida United Methodists overwhelmingly pass statewide resolution calling on Publix to join Fair Food Program…

This past weekend, the six-year Publix campaign reached a critical crossroads when the Florida United Methodist Church (UMC) held its Annual Conference in Daytona Beach to convene, worship, and address church business.  One of the key issues on the table for the delegates — who collectively represent more than 700 churches across the state of Florida — was a resolution calling on Publix to join the Fair Food Program.  

Despite numerous attempts over the past several decades, the Florida UMC had never passed a resolution in support of a farmworker struggle, and this year’s resolution would face a particularly strong headwind: Publix is a key financial supporter of Methodist institutions throughout the state, from universities to camps to local churches.  This fact was by no means lost on the delegates gathered in Daytona and, needless to say, the impending vote was charged with tension arising from this underlying relationship.  Adding to the suspense, the resolution was presented in the final hour of the four-day conference, with anticipation building with each passing day.

In the end, however, Methodist supporters of justice in the fields won the day in a landslide victory, not only passing the resolution supporting the Fair Food Program, but also fending off two planned attempts to strip the resolution of its power through amendments.  First, a bid was launched to remove any mention of Publix altogether — by none other than a pastor who admitted himself before the body, “I have members in my congregation who are key executives in Publix.”  But delegates saw right through the maneuver, as his amendment failed decisively.  Despite the conference’s rejection of the first attempt to water the resolution down, a delegate tried yet again, proposing to change the resolution’s language from the strong and specific “call on Publix… to join the Fair Food Program” to the empty and vague strongly encourage that corporation to support farmworkers in a generous and meaningful way.”  That too failed.

Once the time for talking was over and all the votes were cast, the final tally revealed that the body had overwhelmingly passed the resolution: 515 for, 165 against!

When all was said and done, too many United Methodists had dedicated their energy and support to the Fair Food movement over the years to lose this vote, including countless clergy and lay leaders marching and fasting alongside farmworkers, and hundreds of United Methodist Women leading prayers, writing letters and hosting vigils.  Their faith in action could not be turned back.

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One of the youngest members of United Methodist Women — and a third generation member of the Fair Food Nation — joins farmworkers during the Lakeland finale of the 2014 Now is the Time Tour

For Publix, the message couldn’t be clearer: It’s time to come to the table and sit, in respectful dialogue, face-to-face with farmworkers.  It’s time to join the Fair Food Program.

United Methodist Women hold a powerful 70-person vigil outside a Publix store in Lakeland during their gathering in the summer of 2013
United Methodist Women hold a powerful 70-person vigil outside a Publix store in Lakeland during their gathering in the summer of 2013

Excerpts from the debate

Ahead of the vote itself, the time for public comment set the stage for a compelling debate between those in favor of and those opposed to the resolution, with those lined up to speak in favor far outnumbering those opposed.  Among those delegates who were prepared to stand up for the resolution’s passage was a reverend who spent years working at Publix and is a Publix stockholder, a leader of United Methodist Women, a pastor whose church includes a large community of United Methodist farmworkers, and a church leader who was once minister to Publix’s highest ranking executives.  

Here, below, we bring you some of the powerful exchanges straight from the conference floor itself, starting with opening words from Rev. Roy Terry of the Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, who beautifully articulated the urgent need for Publix to support a proven solution to abuse in the fields.  The following excerpts are long but are truly worth taking a few moments to read through, as they convey the high drama and uplifting nature of the debate in a way that no reporting possibly could:

Bishop, members of the cabinet, and brothers and sisters of the Florida Conference.  It is my honor to bring before you the resolution in support of human rights for farmworkers.

For generations, our brothers and sisters in the fields have faced abuses day in and day out while harvesting the food on our tables.  Their daily bread was backbreaking work beneath the beating sun, all while enduring sub-poverty wages, physical and sexual harassment, and — in extreme cases — modern-day slavery.

The good news is that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or CIW, has led a 20 year struggle against this oppression, with thousands of United Methodists supporting along the way — and it has resulted in a dramatic transformation in the fields, lauded around the world as one of the greatest human rights success stories of our day.  They achieved it by inviting corporations into a unique partnership with them and growers, and ultimately 13 corporations have joined the Fair Food Program, from Taco Bell to Walmart.

The transformation underway in Florida’s fields is affecting tens of thousands of lives.  But the work is not over.  These basic human rights protections could expand to protect hundreds of thousands of people — if a corporation like Publix were to join.  The CIW first invited Publix to a dialogue in 2007, to no response.  In the eight years since, there have been countless letters of invitation, prayers, fasts, actions, vigils, even a 200 mile March, for which our community at Cornerstone provided hundreds of pairs of shoes, and we were just one of fifty churches that supported.  Publix has still never agreed once to sit down with them face-to-face.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said:  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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Rev. Roy Terry leading a prayer with farmworkers and allies at the Duke Chapel in North Carolina during the 2014 Now is the Time Tour

I have personally been involved with the work of the CIW for over 15 years, and their story and movement has impacted the church I serve.  I will never forget watching my church respond to hearing the story of a farm worker mother and father finally being guaranteed payment for all hours on the job — and that meant that for the first time in their lives, they were able to wake up everyday not at 3am but at 6, eat breakfast with their children, and walk them to school before heading to work in the fields. 

This transformation affects the next generations.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus stands before the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah. In that text the good news includes a day of liberation for those who are oppressed and captive – the moment is the embodiment of jubilee!  “Today,” Jesus proclaims, “the scriptures are fulfilled in your presence.”  In the moment Jesus says, “today,” the liberation comes through all he is and offers – we don’t have to wait for it! 

Our brothers and sisters in the fields are inviting us to stand with them in affirming their human dignity and the dignity of all God’s children.

Rev. Terry was followed by Rev. David McEntire of First United Methodist Church of Lakeland, Publix’s hometown, who proposed to strike Publix from the resolution entirely, while admitting, “there are members of my congregation who are key executives in Publix:”

Thank you, Bishop.  I’m David McEntire, from the First United Methodist Church in Lakeland.  I would like to offer the following amendment to the petition.  If you would turn to page 176, line 41: line 41 would begin, “ … supports the groundbreaking changes in Florida agriculture,” and we ask that a copy of the Fair Food Agreement in its entirety be made available to the Florida Annual Conference for study allowing each local church and its members to understand the desired impact of the Fair Food Program, especially as it relates to the workers and businesses currently or potentially affected by the Fair Food Agreement.  Further we call for consistent and fair enforcement of all laws protecting the rights of workers. […]

[…]  First, I want to say thank you to Roy Terry, Audrey Warren, Lisa Lefkow and Stephanie Campbell for continuing to bring before us this deep and very real concern.  They honor James 5:4 which says, “Listen, hear the cries of field workers who you have cheated of their pay.  The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord.” And I must in full disclosure state that like most of our churches, I have members who work for Publix and Wendy’s and other concerned businesses.  In particular there are members are my congregation who are key executives in Publix and because we’re asking a particular commitment from corporations which affects many of our members, it behooves us to be wise and informed.

I personally have benefited from those who continually advocate for those who harvest in our fields, those potentially vulnerable, and abused persons.  I am trying to learn more, and respond to the struggles and difficulties of the harvesters every day.  My own church has for several years undertaken a strong ministry for migrant children in Polk County who show strong academic promise and now we’re asked to call upon the companies to join the Fair Food Program by in particularly strongly asking them to sign the Fair Food Agreement.  Like many of you, I have not read — I have read the descriptions, but I have not read the actual agreement.  Walmart, Burger King, Subway, Taco Bell, McDonald’s and others have signed it, but these documents remain confidential and we’d like the ability to understand and study these documents. 

So Bishop, as several of those signers of the Fair Food Agreement have already been sued because they have been conjoined as contractual agreers in that agreement, I want to make sure we study it before we call on a particular organization to do so.  It is complicated and convoluted.  Thank you. 

Rev. John Powers, the District Superintendent of the Gulf Central District, firmly rebutted:

First of all, the Fair Food Agreement is very clear, the boilerplates of it is on the website, the individual contracts with the corporations are negotiated between the corporations and CIW.  We’re asking that Publix sit down with the CIW and negotiate which they’ve not done.  

Also, David mentions the court cases, I know what he’s talking about, I’ve talked to the lawyer that filed the lawsuit against the corporations.  It involves money from 2007 to 2010 that was put into escrow because the growers at that time weren’t cooperating.  They are cooperating now — all the money has gone to the farmworkers.  It’s been substantiated by a third party monitoring group that today is chaired by a former Supreme Court justice from New York.  It is an independent third party monitoring system that oversees the entire program.  

I also will say that the lawyer who filed the suit that David is talking about, I had an hour and a half conversation with him.  He does not believe that his lawsuit should in any way affect Publix sitting at the table and negotiating with CIW and he believes that the Fair Food Agreement has done a lot of good for the farmworkers.  I hope we will vote down this amendment. 

After another member of the conference then expressed her hesitation about the measure in light of Publix’s sterling reputation as a community-centered company, the resolution found yet another powerful and unwavering voice in Nancy Metz, laity of the Southwest District:

The dramatic transformation underway in the fields means that tens of thousands people — for the first time ever — have the right to things most of us take for granted like shade and water and the right to be free of sexual harassment and slavery. 

What’s important to recognize is that this transformation didn’t happen on its own.  It took years of inviting corporations into dialogue, and then partnership, in order to make these changes possible.  And it takes inviting Publix into dialogue, and then partnership, in order to expand these changes to the 2-3 million other farmworkers in the country who deserve this basic treatment too.

The world’s eyes are on Florida’s fields right now.  The Fair Food Program has been lauded on the world stage — whether it’s with the Presidential Medal at the White House, by the United Nations as a global model for countries around the world, or on the front page of the New York Times.

The reason it is important that this resolution make a call to Publix is that when the world’s eyes are on Florida’s fields, they’re also on Florida’s grocer.  Publix is Florida’s largest corporation.  It’s one of the ten largest private corporations in the United States.  The farmworkers who have been asking Publix to recognize their humanity are not only the people responsible for the produce on the shelves; they are their neighbors.  Thirteen other major food retailers have joined the Fair Food Program.  Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, joined voluntarily, because they saw it as smart for business.

As United Methodists, we know all know that this is true.  That’s why we voted in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers calling for this partnership at General Conference in 2004.  That’s why thousands of United Methodists have prayed, written letters, fasted, sat vigil, and marched with farmworkers in support.

United Methodist Women share their book of letters to Publix along with CIW member Nely Rodriguez
Leaders of United Methodist Women share their book of letters to Publix, all calling for Fair Food, along with CIW member Nely Rodriguez

Publix’s participation in this program would mean that rights affecting tens of thousands could affect hundreds of thousands.  What we’re calling for is a response to farmworkers’ invitation to dialogue.  Remember, we all celebrate this transformation now underway, but transformation took work, and it takes work.  Let’s commit together to standing with our brothers and sisters in the fields by encouraging their calls for dialogue and upholding the human dignity of all God’s children — not only for those in the fields today, but for all the next generations to come.

I’m uncomfortable about being here in this position but I can’t — God comes to me and speaks to me and says you know you have to do something, this is your chance, and I want you to be my spokesperson.

If I think I’m uncomfortable, I can’t imagine what its like to be outside working in the fields and not have access to fresh water and shade rests and be a woman who is fearing sexual harassment.  I encourage you to vote against this amendment.

Nancy’s words hung in the air for a moment, after which a delegate called Rev. McEntire’s proposed amendment to a vote.  A graph appeared on the large screen at the front of the auditorium: 174 in favor; 326 against.  Rev. McEntire’s attempt to shield Publix had failed decisively.  

And then came the second attempted amendment, from Keith Dody of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville:

I was looking at the wording on page 176, “Whereas Publix, Florida largest company…” What I suggest is that, or propose as an amendment, is that the rest of that paragraph be struck for a more positive statement.

I think Publix still should be called out, but I think as my mother used to say, you can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar, and I forget where that is in the Bible. But anyway, I would suggest a wording such as, “Whereas Florida, Publix’s largest company, has yet to join in this effort, we strongly encourage that corporation to support farmworkers in a generous and meaningful way.” This gives them the opportunity to change their mind; this gives them the opportunity to participate in another way.

But the resolution’s supporters held strong.  Rev. Beth Bostrom from the Southeast District, responded:

Point of order, Bishop. This amendment would change the substance of the resolution to the point that it would remove the action that is requested and therefore negate years and years of work. Negating the specific desired outcomes changes the entire resolution. 

Once again, an attempt to water down the resolution failed by a huge margin: 421 to 211.  

And then, as the resolution in all of its integrity was brought to a vote, the results were projected onto the large screen on the front: 515 to 165, a landslide win.  The room — against the rules of the conference — burst into applause. 

The dramatic victory was sealed by the powerful words and spirit of Florida United Methodists who have truly taken the time and effort to inform themselves about the state’s long history of farmworker poverty and abuse, to get to know the members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their two-decade old campaign for dignity and economic justice, and to learn about the groundbreaking Fair Food Program and its unprecedented advances for human rights in Florida’s fields.  Knowledge is power, and at the Florida United Methodists’ Annual Conference this year, knowledge — and a deep, abiding love for one’s fellow human beings — won out over fear, division, and sheer financial power.

The Campaign for Fair Food and the Fair Food Program — with farmworkers at the helm, accompanied by the unwavering United Methodist community and many thousands of other faith, student, and community allies — will continue to chart a course toward a more modern, more humane Florida agricultural industry.  The only question that remains is when Publix will come on board.