“Immokalee workers raise stakes; May boycott fast-food chain in try to raise tomato prices”

Ft. Myers News-Press



Erica Klopf, 21, left, of the FGCU Environmental Association and Angela Cisneros, 24, of the FGCU Progressive Alliance work on a banner supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on Saturday, March 1, 2008 outside the Florida Gulf Coast University student union.

The banner denounces the decision by fast food giant Burger King not to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. The students will display the banner on campus hoping to gain support from fellow students for a petition. Then it will give the banner to the CIW for use in protests. photo: Stephen Hayford/news-press.com

They’ve been asking for years but haven’t gotten what they want.

So now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is bringing out its big guns: a high-profile, multi-faceted national campaign and the threat of a boycott designed to persuade Burger King to pay a penny more a pound for tomatoes and “eliminate slavery and human rights abuses from Florida’s fields.”

This week, coalition members are fanning out across the country to gather support for the effort, which is tied to the 200th anniversary of the U.S. ban on the importation of slaves.

This approach has worked for the grassroots coalition in the past. In 2005, after a campaign of national protests, petitions and hunger strikes, Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company agreed to the increase. Fast food giant McDonald’s signed on in 2007.

But Burger King has refused to agree to the raise, prompting Senate labor committee member Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to call for Senate hearings on farm conditions, tentatively scheduled for next month.

After visiting Immokalee tomato workers in January, Sanders called their living conditions “among the worst in the agriculture industry.” His visit came the day after a federal grand jury in Fort Myers released a 17-count indictment alleging six people enslaved undocumented farmworkers from Guatemala and Mexico by taking their identification, forcing them to work without pay, creating debts they couldn’t repay and beating them if they wanted to leave.

The Coalition is asking supporters to sign a petition calling on Burger King to:

“1. Pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes and ensure that the increase is passed on to tomato pickers in the form of increased wages; and

“2. Work with the CIW to establish and enforce a human rights-based code of conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor, to ensure fair and safe working conditions.”

So far, the petition is being well received throughout the country, said coalition member Greg Asbed. The CIW plans to deliver the petitions to the Miami headquarters of Burger King later this spring.

Burger King supports the effort, said Keva Silversmith, the company’s director of external communications.

“We’ve reviewed the petition and hope to have the opportunity to sign it ourselves,” he said “We’re totally for improving labor conditions (and) our door absolutely remains open to the CIW. We call on them to sit down with us and work out something meaningful on behalf of the farmworkers,” Silversmith said.

But, Silversmith said, not the proposed penny-per-pound increase, which won’t produce change.
Instead, he said the CIW should “stop attacking Burger King and use that energy to do something productive for the farmworkers.”

The campaign is close to the heart of Florida Gulf Coast University student Angela Cisneros.

“My parents used to be farmworkers in Immokalee,” said the 24-year-old political science major. “And I see the Coalition is actually fighting for wages, to help with the problems workers face.”

Cisneros and fellow students are making a banner for the student union depicting the FGCU eagle, the school’s mascot; each of its feathers will be a petition signature.

Students at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers are getting involved and so is St. Columbkille Catholic Church south of Fort Myers.

“We’re getting signatures collected this weekend,” said parishioner Chris McBride. “It’s what we’re called to do — to help our brothers and sisters.”

A thousand miles to the north in Kentucky, professor and minister Johnny Hill of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary agreed.

“We’re supporting the CIW because we recognize that there are present-day forms of slavery and it’s a crisis in Southern Florida. We want to be in solidarity with the Florida workers. It’s very clear that they need our support.”
In addition to an on-campus petition drive, in late April he’s helping organize a march from the campus to a slavery monument in Louisville.

“This city was a former distribution center of slaves heading to the West and South, so it’s certainly fitting to raise consciousness here,” Hill said.

Laura Germino, CIW Anti-Slavery program coordinator, wants to raise corporate consciousness as well.

“Year after year, our local headlines have brought us news about the latest slavery prosecutions to emerge from Florida’s fields,” she said. “Yet the major corporations that buy Florida tomatoes and sell them to the public have essentially turned a blind eye,” and opposed pay increases.

With this campaign, Germino said, “Workers and consumers are telling Burger King and other food industry leaders that seven federal (slavery) prosecutions in 10 years is enough, and that it is time — finally — that Burger King do everything in its power to ensure that the tomatoes we eat are free of forced labor and other human rights abuses.”