Fair Food Pray-in at Publix!

Losing patience with Publix, faith leaders take action in the produce aisle, call on CEO Ed Crenshaw to “be a man of compassion and fairness”

On February 1, 1960, four students took seats at the segregated lunch counter (below) of the Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They ordered coffee, but because they were African-American, they were denied service and were asked to leave. They refused, staying in their seats until closing time.The next day, more than twenty students returned to the same whites-only lunch counter. On the third day, more than sixty students joined the “sit-in,” suffering the taunts and unprovoked violence of mobs of young men who gathered to defend the dying system of legal segregation.The Greensboro sit-ins continued to grow, spreading through North Carolina and ultimately expanding to department stores throughout the South. By the time the sit-in movement reached its apex, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending legally-sanctioned segregation in the United States.

Yesterday, in Naples, Florida, several local clergy joined with farmworkers from Immokalee for the first-ever Fair Food “pray-in,” held in the produce aisle of a Publix supermarket, in protest of Publix’s ongoing refusal to support fairer wages and more humane working conditions for the workers who pick their tomatoes. Here’s an account of the action, from the Ft. Myers News-Press (“Immokalee coalition to pedal to Lakeland,” 8/20/11):

“Surrounded by heaps of red tomatoes, a handful of Immokalee farmworkers’ advocates bowed their heads Friday in the produce aisle of Publix and prayed.The religious leaders spoke of Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw as grocery carts rolled across the cold linoleum.

‘Guide Ed Crenshaw to be a man of compassion and fairness,’ they prayed. ‘Guide the employees of Publix not to disappoint us customers who feel connected by the food we eat both to them and to the hard workers of Immokalee…” read more

The pray-in was a simple, but remarkably moving, action. It cast a stark light on the contrast between the workers’ timeless call for justice and Publix’s indefensible decision to turn its back on the first real solution to generations of exploitation and human rights violations in Florida’s fields. It was the first action of its kind, but it will not be the last. Friday’s pray-in came in advance of next week’s planned “Pilgrimage to Publix,” a 200-mile, ten-day bike tour from Immokalee to Lakeland, Publix’s hometown, where CIW members and their allies will seek a meeting with Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw. The workers hope to invite Mr. Crenshaw to visit Immokalee and learn first-hand — away from the confines of the corporate headquarters and the misguided counsel of his public relations department — about the harsh and degrading poverty faced by tens of thousands of Florida farmworkers, including those who pick tomatoes for Publix.

As part of Friday’s announcement, the same clergy bought 32 pounds of tomatoes from the Publix store where they held the pray-in. From the Naples Daily News coverage of the event (“Pedaling for pennies: Farmworkers want Publix to pay more for tomatoes,” 8/20/11):

“… CIW is organizing the ride, which will last until Labor Day, as part of its campaign to raise the wages of field workers by encouraging increased pay from the top-down. If Publix were to accept the conditions, the Florida-based company would pay 1 cent per pound purchased from growers.This would translate to approximately a 64 percent increase in pay for field workers, who earn 50 cents per 32-pound bucket. The extra cent would go directly to workers’ paychecks.To earn the state’s minimum wage of $7.31 per hour in a typical 10-hour workday, field workers have to pick, de-stem, and haul more than 4,600 pounds of tomatoes in a day…… Otzoy, Perez, and their supporters held a prayer session inside the Publix, in front of a display of tomatoes and avocados, before purchasing enough tomatoes to fill the same bucket that growers pay pickers 50 cents to fill.

That bucket cost $79.63 at the supermarket that day…” read more

Do the math: .50 divided by 79.63 equals, rounding up, 0.0063. That means that farmworkers earn roughly one half of one percent (0.63%) of the final price of a pound of tomatoes at the checkout counter. One half of one percent… for the people who sweat until they can’t sweat any more under the Florida sun to get the tomatoes out of the field and onto trucks headed to supermarkets and restaurants across the country. Without their labor the tomatoes rot in the fields, yet 99.5% of the final price of tomatoes goes to everyone else in the supply chain, with the lion’s share going to Publix.Some day — maybe the day when Mr. Crenshaw finally walks the streets of Immokalee with CIW members to see the world through their eyes — that will change. Until then, pilgrimages, pray-ins, and protests will continue. Check back soon for coverage from the road of the Pilgrimage to Publix, beginning next Saturday…