May 23, 2008

(pictures by Fritz Myer and the CIW)

On Friday, May 23, there was a press conference in the US Capitol, but this one was decidedly different from most press conferences that take place beneath that storied dome…

… because this press conference was held to announce the signing of an agreement between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Burger King corporation, an agreement that extended Fair Food principles to the world’s second-largest hamburger chain and ended a long campaign that had grown increasingly tense in its final months.

As the day began, CIW members and their allies filed into the offices of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders…

… where they were greeted as old friends by the Senator who has become the staunchest champion of the Campaign for Fair Food on Capitol Hill.

The CIW crew was received by the Senator’s staff with a light breakfast, which provided for a light moment in the pre-conference gathering when one of the youngest members of the CIW delegation, apparently losing his patience after several minutes of informal speeches, asked the Senator if he was planning on sharing the melon with his guests.

Then, it was on to the press conference, but not before a long and winding trip through the halls of power…

… to S120, a room packed — standing room only — with press and CIW allies gathered for the historic occasion.

Senator Sanders opened the proceedings. His speech focused on the future, and the promise that the day’s agreement held for real progress for workers in Immokalee, workers whose conditions represent, in Senator Sanders’ words, “the bottom in the country’s race to the bottom.” He underscored the importance of the agreement for workers across the country, pointing out that improving the conditions of the most exploited workers will have positive repercussions on workers throughout the economy. To further explain why a senator from Vermont should be so moved by a struggle for justice in Florida, Sen. Sanders talked about his January visit to Immokalee and concluded: “What I saw shocked me. Vermont may be far from Florida, but what I saw warranted action. Vermont was the first state in America to abolish slavery. So, when we see slavery going on in our country, we get involved.”

Lucas Benitez of the CIW followed. He began by singling out Senator Kennedy for his steadfast support of the Campaign for Fair Food, noting that “while Senator Kennedy has dedicated his life to issues and movements far better-known and more important than ours, he has always been distinguished by his ability to recognize the fundamental justice in even the smallest of causes and lending his support to small and large struggles alike. That is what has made him a leader among leaders.” In the name of the CIW, Lucas wished Senator Kennedy a full and quick recovery in his own struggle with cancer.

Lucas went on to address the agreement and to sketch out a vision for the road ahead. Here’s an excerpt:

“There are companies — like Chipotle in the restaurant world and Whole Foods in the grocery industry — that already make claims to social responsibility yet, when it comes to tomatoes, fall far short of their lofty claims. It is time, now, that those companies live out the true meaning of their marketers’ words.

And there are companies — like Subway and WalMart — that, by the sheer volume of their purchases, profit like few others from the pernicious poverty of workers in Florida’s fields. They, too, must step up now. After eight years of this campaign — and the very public commitment of the three largest fast-food companies in the world to the principles of Fair Food — they can no longer claim ignorance of the problem nor can they say that the solution is not possible.”

Lucas was followed by Ms. Amy Wagner, Burger King’s Senior Vice President for Global Communications. In a gracious and sincere speech, Ms. Wagner managed to do what seemed at best unlikely — and at worst impossible — just a few days ago: Publicly pivot Burger King from a position of unwavering antipathy toward the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food to one of broad and committed partnership.

Ms. Wagner agreed with the fundamental proposition of the Campaign for Fair Food, stating unequivocally that, “If the Florida tomato industry is to be sustainable long term, it must become more socially responsible.” She went on to praise the CIW for, “being on the forefront of efforts to improve farm labor conditions, exposing abuses and driving socially responsible purchasing and work practices in the Florida tomato fields.”

Ms. Wagner’s words echoed the sentiments of Burger King CEO John Chidsey, who said in a prepared statement, “We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW or its motives . . . and now realize those statements were wrong… Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farmworkers.”

Those words needed to be said after the acrimony of the past several months. But the true test of leadership in the months ahead will take place behind the scenes, where Burger King’s management team will be faced with the task of translating those words into changes on the ground. Those whose job it is to implement the agreement in Burger King’s supply chain will undoubtedly look to the top of the company for guidance. We can only hope that Mr. Chidsey and his team are able to seize this opportunity to turn the food industry giant into a true leader for more just and responsible supply chain practices.

Bishop William Murphy, chairman of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, also issued a statement, delivered at the press conference by Mr. John Carr (above), executive director of the Committee. Bishop Murphy commended both the CIW and Burger King for the groundbreaking agreement, mentioning that, “the Catholic Bishops of Florida and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development have provided consistent and concrete support for the Coalition and for the legitimate demands for justice for farm workers.”

He also touched on the road ahead, and on the importance of real commitment to the agreement in the face of almost certain resistance from other forces in the food industry, saying, “The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops hopes this remarkable agreement will lead to additional steps toward fair and just treatment for farm workers in Florida and elsewhere. We urge the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Burger King, tomato growers and their representatives, other food companies and consumers to actively support and advance– and avoid actions which block or limit– the provisions and promise of this important step forward for justice and for farm workers.”

Then, after all the words had been said, it was time to act… specifically, to sign, and so memorialize the commitment of the CIW and Burger King to the terms of the agreement to improve wages and working conditions in the fields where Burger King’s tomatoes are picked. Highlights of the agreement include:

  • BK agrees to pay an additional net penny per pound to the Florida farm workers who harvest its tomatoes. To encourage grower participation in this increased wage program, BK will also pay incremental payroll taxes and administrative costs incurred by the growers as a result of their farmworkers’ increased wages, or a total of 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes.
  • BK also joins other fast-food industry leaders and the CIW in calling for an industry-wide net penny per pound surcharge to increase wages for Florida tomato harvesters.
  • Together, BK and the CIW have also established zero tolerance guidelines for certain unlawful activities that require immediate termination of any grower from the Burger King supply chain. The BK/CIW collaboration additionally provides for farmworker participation in the monitoring of growers’ compliance with the company’s vendor code of conduct.

Click here to see the joint press release in its entirety, with further detail on the agreement.

Finally, the press conference was wrapped up with a heartfelt handshake…

… and some group pictures, with CIW members, allies, Senator Sanders, and Burger King representatives standing together in celebration of the agreement.

Of course, no event would be complete without an interview of the principals for the CIW radio station, Radio Conciencia, so that the day’s news can be shared directly with the community in Immokalee. Here the CIW’s Romeo Ramirez interviews Sen. Sanders.

And this picture pretty much sums it all up — smiles all around, on the faces of those who helped win this hard-fought victory, including Melody Gonzalez and Marc Rodrigues of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, and on the faces of those who are the future of Immokalee, whose future looks a whole lot brighter in the light of this groundbreaking agreement.

Join us in the months and years ahead as we continue — together — with the hard work of making that better future a reality.