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February 23, 2004

Contact: Lucas Benitez, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 239-821-5481, 239-503-0133 (cell); Julia Perkins 239-986-0891; Brian Payne, Student/Farmworker Alliance, 239-986-0688 (cell)
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Activist Dolores Huerta, author Eric Schlosser (Fast-Food Nation), artists Tom Morello (Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine) and Boots Riley (the Coup) to join 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureates, farmworkers, in rally, marches

Students from over 70 universities launch marches, solidarity actions across the nation

Immokalee, FL -- The nationally recognized movement “for FAIR food that respects human rights, not fast-food that exploits human beings” takes to the road on February 25th. More than 100 farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Florida-based farmworker organization spearheading the national Taco Bell boycott, will set off on the 2004 Taco Bell Truth Tour, taking the truth about the exploitation behind Taco Bell’s products to consumers from Kentucky to California.

[The CIW’s campaign has been featured in the New Yorker, the National Geographic, and PBS; three CIW members received this year’s prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work combatting slavery and sweatshop conditions in US tomato fields and fruit groves; the boycott has been endorsed by the National Council of Churches, the LA County Federation of Labor, the National Family Farm Coalition, and United Students Against Sweatshops.]

The Tour’s highlight will be a 3-day, 44-mile march from historic East LA to Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, CA, beginning on March 2nd. The marchers will be joined by American icon Dolores Huerta on March 3rd, and will end their march in a major, day-long rally on March 5th. Confirmed participants for the rally include Tom Morello (Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine), Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), and Boots Riley (Rolling Stone Magazine’s 2001 “Hip Hop Artist of the Year”). Representatives of the UFCW and SEIU, religious supporters, students, civil rights activists, family farmers, and responsible consumers will all be out in full force.

Before reaching California, workers will march and rally in Louisville, KY, on February 27th at YUM Brands headquarters, the parent company of Taco Bell. YUM is the largest restaurant company in the world -- larger than McDonalds -- owning Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silvers, A&W Restaurants, and Pasta Bravo. Workers plan to “air Taco Bell’s dirty laundry” at the rally, in a display of hundreds of sweat- and dirt-stained workshirts and caps collected from fellow CIW members who toil at sub-poverty wages in the fields.

Conditions in East Coast tomato fields run the gamut from sweatshops to slavery. In the past five years, US Justice Department officials have criminally prosecuted five multi-state farm slavery rings involving over 1,000 workers. The CIW assisted the DOJ in the investigation and prosecution of four of the five recent cases.

“We have investigated cases where people have been pistol-whipped, held at gunpoint, beaten, and told they would have their tongues cut out if they talked to the authorities,” says Lucas Benitez of the CIW, and 2003 RFK Human Rights Award Laureate. “Of course, that’s the extreme of exploitation in the fields, but sweatshop conditions -- sub-poverty wages, no right to organize, no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no benefits at all -- are our everyday reality.”

Brian Payne of the Student/Farmworker Alliance adds, “Taco Bell has a policy that it will not buy food from suppliers that mistreat animals. All we are asking is that they have the same policy for humans. As an example, many workers today still earn 40 cents per bucket of tomatoes picked -- the same piece rate paid a quarter-century ago. The market power of YUM, in contrast, has grown exponentially in that time, and that power to demand low prices for tomatoes is an important reason why the piece rate has remained stagnant for so long. Just as they can use their buying power to demand low prices, they can turn it around and demand humane working conditions, too.”

The latest US Department of Labor report on farm labor conditions found “low wages and sub-poverty annual earnings ($7,500 a year),” concluding that US farmworkers are a “labor force in significant economic distress.” At the same time, the agri-food industry, from farms to fast-food corporations, has enjoyed unprecedented growth over the past two decades. That growth has allowed fast-food companies like Yum Brands to leverage their unprecedented market power to demand the lowest possible prices for their produce, depressing farmworker wages and working conditions in the process.

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Background: Developments in the Taco Bell Boycott

In the less than three years since the boycott was launched:

* Students from eighteen schools and universities have successfully blocked or removed Taco Bell restaurants and products from campus, including the University of Chicago and University of San Francisco. The boycott is one of the fastest-growing student campaigns in the country.

* 39% of YUM’s shareholders voted in favor of a resolution supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (May 2003), an unprecedented result for a responsible shareholder resolution on its first attempt;

* The National Council of Churches, representing 50 million Christians, endorsed the Taco Bell boycott (June 2003), as have dozens of unions, student movements, national churches, celebrities, and community organizations, including the LA County Federation of Labor, the Presbyterian Church USA, and United Students Against Sweatshops;

* The boycott has been covered by ABC World News Tonight, the New Yorker, the National Geographic, CNN, PBS, BBC World News, Financial Times of London, Washington Post, NPR, Court TV, Telemundo, Univision, and others;

* Three CIW members won the 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their fight against human rights violations and for corporate responsibility, the first time the Award has gone to a US organization;

* Public awareness of the agri-food industries’ role in depressing workers’ wages and working conditions has grown exponentially;

* The CIW investigated and assisted the Department of Justice in the criminal prosecution of yet another criminal slavery ring in Florida’s fields, and two more slavery operations were brought to public attention by the press;

* The CIW and YUM Brands (Taco Bell’s parent company) have met for talks several times.