After weeks of gathering petition signatures in communities across the country, CIW members and allies prepared to deliver their urgent message of reform to Burger King headquarters in Miami.

But first, the day broke with shocking news as residents of Ft. Myers — the Gulf Coast city across the Everglades from Miami — awoke to a front page story about the widening “dirty tricks” scandal linked to Burger King Vice President Steve Grover (pictured above from an earlier CIW action at BK headquarters, photo by CIW). The Ft. Myers News-Press article, “Burger King VP puts self on grill” (4/28/08), details the harsh and libelous online campaign against the CIW, its allies, and the Campaign for Fair Food.

Here’s an excerpt from one such posting, from a readers’ forum following a story on the CIW in the Naples Daily News: “The CIW is an attack organization and will drive business out of Immokalee while they line their own pockets… They are the lowest form of life exploiting the poor workers to line there (sic) own pockets. I will buy all the Whoppers I can, good going Burger King for uncovering these blood suckers.”

The posts also frequently claimed that the penny-per-pound payments from the Yum Brands agreement never made their way to workers, an accusation Mr. Grover knew to be false.

The breaking story — which spread rapidly through an AP wire story, “Farmworker advocates to present Burger King with petition” (4/28/08) — even landed Grover on the popular MSNBC news program “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” As part of his recurring series, “Worst person in the world,” Olbermann awarded Grover a bronze medal for “anonymously trashing farmworkers and using his daughter’s online ID to do so.See the video here.

And so it was that a day that had been anticipated for months arrived with a sense of heightened urgency, and what was to be a small delegation of farmworkers and their allies delivering petition signatures became a vibrant action of nearly 200 people determined to press the fight for Fair Food
(photo by Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press)

That urgency was conveyed powerfully in the CIW’s message, delivered by Gerardo Reyes, at the press conference that launched the day’s events. Here’s an excerpt from the speech:

But what has never been clear is Burger King’s true position, and why it continues to refuse to lend its support to change. But today, perhaps, this has been made clear in the press. According to an article in today’s Ft. Myers News Press, Mr. Steve Grover, vice president of Burger King, under a false name, is behind a series of anonymous and defamatory commentaries about the CIW. In these commentaries, he has called us “the lowest form of life,” “bloodsuckers,” and has accused us of being ourselves “exploiters”. How is it possible, in Mr. Grover’s eyes, that a community of farmworkers struggling precisely to defend our fundamental human rights can be considered something without humanity, “the lowest form of life”? “Exploiters”? For bringing six cases of slavery to federal court? “Bloodsuckers”? For demanding publicly that the fast-food industry — which is worth over $100 billion — take measures to end human rights abuses?

Burger King has the obligation to clarify if the words of their vice president reflect also Burger King’s position as a corporation. If that is in fact the case, then they should have the courage to declare it openly, now, and not like cowards hiding in the shadows of the internet. And if their position is different, they must clarify that today, and not with words, but with concrete actions.

The CIW’s call was backed by allies representing nearly 85,000 (84,952, to be exact…) Fair Food activists from across all fifty U.S. states and forty-two countries. Here South Florida AFL-CIO President Fred Frost stood in for more than 10,000 signatures collected by the AFL-CIO nationally and pledged the continuing support of the nation’s largest labor federation to the Campaign for Fair Food.

Rev. Greg Bentley, President of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, spoke of the long-term commitment of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to the struggle of the Immokalee workers for fair wages and humane treatment. He also assured the fast-food giant that the church stands ready to continue the fight if a resolution is not soon in coming.

Kate Kelly, a high school student from Austin, Texas and member of the Student/Farmworker Alliance national steering committee, addressed the importance of the ongoing role of students in the campaign:

I’m here today because I believe that as important as the quality of our food is, the living and working conditions of the people who cultivate that food are more important. Just as BK sees farmworkers who pick the tomatoes they use as harvesting machines that they can subject to heinously low wages and other abuses, they see students and youth as mindless consuming machines that they can manipulate into buying their products Come next fall, we will be back on campus with more force them ever, ready to make them come to the table and make them hear us.

After several more presentations — including speeches by Fr. Roger Holoubek (St. Maurice Catholic Church in Dania Beach), Rev. Kennedy McGowan (Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood), and Dr. Arlene Gordon (Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Tropical Florida) — the press conference was brought to a close by the day’s excellent Master of Ceremonies, Leno Rose-Avila, Executive Director, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.

Finally it was time for the official delivery of the petition signatures, which was launched with an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” by Manny Zidor of Miami that sent shivers down 200 spines.

We started the day bringing roughly 75,000 signatures from Immokalee to Burger King’s headquarters. Over the course of the action, however, Fair Food activists poured in from communities across Florida to deliver another 10,000 signatures in person (including well over 1,000 from the University of Miami and 700 from Florida Gulf Coast University!), much to the glee of the campaign’s official keeper of the count.

The first petition to make its way across the entrance to BK’s headquarters and to the tree where the signatures were to be left was, appropriately, the CIW scroll. The scroll stretched more than 80 feet in length and was signed by over 4,000 workers from Immokalee.

The procession lasted nearly an hour, as dozens of incredibly imaginative and varied petitions created by local communities followed the CIW scroll to Burger King’s doorstep (photo by S. Aylin Gurses).

None other than the Campaign for Fair Food’s own Graciela Lopez from Washington, DC — whose story of indefatigable campaigning, which evoked comparisons to that of the legendary British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, was reported on this site several weeks ago — traveled to Miami from DC to deliver the more than 1,300 signatures she herself contributed to the 85,000 signature total.

As hundreds of communities filtered through the procession, a growing mountain of evidence reminded Burger King, perhaps more forcefully than ever, of the far-reaching support underlying the Campaign for Fair Food and the willingness of tens of thousands of consumers to boycott the fast-food giant if necessary.

The petition delivery, together with the news of the widening BK scandal, brought national and international media attention to the event. Here Lucas Benitez speaks with a reporter from Notimex (Mexico’s national news wire) about the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields.

After more than two hours of airing the dirty laundry of a fast-food industry that continues to deny the indignities and brutal exploitation faced by the workers who harvest its tomatoes, the delivery ceremony came to an end. [The shirts above, of course, are in fact yet another of the many creative petitions delivered to Burger King on this day, work shirts signed by hundreds of members of St. Columbkille Church in Ft. Myers, Florida.]

The day ended with a wonderful dinner, graciously provided by the folks at Grace Lutheran Church in Hialeah. And for desert… one last inspired petition — a petition piñata from Philadelphia, filled with strips of paper signed by hundreds of Philly Fair Food activists and, of course, bags of candy!

At the one-year mark since the historic agreement with McDonald’s and the launch of the Burger King campaign, it is abundantly clear, in the words of Gerardo Reyes, “The change we seek is inevitable. Now all that remains to be seen is how much longer it takes for Burger King to realize that reality… One day soon, Burger King will have to realize that is time to finally take responsibility. Until that day, however, we will return to our reality as farmworkers, and we ask that you, as you return to your communities, keep the promise of this struggle alive with no doubt in your hearts that victory will be ours.”