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Another Great Boycott Taco Bell Article

by Chantel G. Monday, Feb. 25, 2002 at 10:34 PM

read below


Taco Bell should help tomato pickers
By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist
St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2002

IMMOKALEE -- We take advantage of their natural kindness and
humility. We take advantage of their preference for silence. We take
advantage of their love of family. We take advantage of their
thriftiness. We take advantage of their immigration status. We take
advantage of their ability to survive on next to nothing.

And, above all else, we take advantage of their proven work ethic.

Each time I visit this Collier County town, the nation's tomato
capital, I am reminded of our abuse of farm workers and their
families, of how we take advantage of them in every way.

The current national boycott of Taco Bell, jointly organized by the
Coalition of Immokalee Workers and other groups, illustrates the
history of farm labor in Florida and other agricultural states. That
history is a chronicle of human exploitation that states and the
federal government sanction.

Some background on the Taco Bell boycott: Since 1977, tomato
pickers in Immokalee, Florida's largest farm-worker community, have
been organizing for the right to merely talk with the state's tomato
growers to improve farm-labor conditions and to raise the
crop-picking piece rate. Despite signature drives, work stoppages, a
230-milemarch across South Florida and a 30-day hunger strike by six
coalition members, the growers still refuse to meet with farm-worker
representatives. The main result, of course, is the piece rate has
remained virtually the same since the 1970s. When inflation is added,
wages have decreased.

After pickers learned that Taco Bell is a major buyer of tomatoes
they harvest, they informed company executives two years ago of the
low wages and deplorable in the fields. Coalition representatives
requested a meeting with Taco Bell executives but were turned away.

"The tomatoes Taco Bell buys for its tacos are produced in what can
be described as sweatshop conditions," said Lucas Benitez, a
coalition worker and an organizer of the national boycott. "Twenty
years of picking at sub-poverty wages, no right to overtime pay, no
right to organize or join a union, no health insurance, no sick
leave, no paid holidays and no pension is a national disgrace. We as
farm workers are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our

The coalition wants Taco Bell to use its muscle to invite tomato
growers to start meaningful talks with pickers. The organization also
wants the taco giant to voluntarily pay 1 cent more per pound for its
tomatoes. The current price is about 40 cents per pound. If growers
would then pay that penny to the pickers, wages would jump to a
livable level.

"With this simple move," a coalition organizer said, "a chain
reaction of positive things would occur. "The cost to consumers would
be less than one half-cent for each taco. The owners would gain a
stable, motivated work force, and Taco Bell would get a public
relations bonanza by being seen as an ethical company."

Romeo Ramirez, another coalition leader, points out the bitter
irony of Taco Bell's refusal to help pickers: "Recently, we read in
Nation's Restaurant News (a trade publication) that the major
fast-food chains are getting together to draft requirements for their
meat suppliers that set guidelines for the humane treatment of farm

"If Taco Bell and other fast-food giants can require their
suppliers to treat farm animals humanely, they should be able to
understand our call for humane working conditions for farm workers."

No such luck.

At this writing, Taco Bell officials apparently do not intend to
draft guidelines for the humane treatment of farm workers.

In time, and I certainly hope that I am right, Taco Bell will
regret its refusal to champion farm-worker rights as did Nike and
other conglomerates that initially ignored the rights of their
workers. Using highly effective protests, the nation's college
students brought negative attention to Nike's sweatshop working
conditions in Third World countries. Nike made sea changes after the
protests turned into public relations nightmares.

I am thrilled that college students in Florida and elsewhere are
adopting the cause of the nation's tomato pickers. During the last
three weeks I spoke to two classes at the University of Tampa that
have made farm-worker issues their research assignments. Some plan to
join the boycotts. At the University of Florida, I spoke to a new
campus organization that has aligned with the Coalition of Immokalee

The coalition recruited hundreds of student protesters on at least
10 other Florida campuses during a recent tour.

Beginning this Thursday, a caravan of migrant workers, activists
and college students will embark from Tampa on a 15-city, national
bus tour to raise awareness about Taco Bell's imprimatur on sweatshop
conditions in the nation's tomato fields.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that when college students
take up a righteous cause and agitate in large numbers, things happen
in a hurry. Besides supporting human misery, Taco Bell should worry
that the 18-to-24-year-old age group (college-age students) is its
target market.

Increasing numbers of students are joining the cause. Taco Bell,
one of the nation's biggest users of tomatoes, should do the right
thing and sit down with protesters. Why become another Nike? Why face
the wrath of angry consumers?

Why not voluntarily take the moral high road and stop taking
advantage of tomato pickers?

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