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McDonald's farmworker raise fought by growers

by Mike Hughlett Thursday, Nov. 08, 2007 at 9:06 PM

McDonald's Corp.'s high-profile deal to raise wages for Florida tomato pickers appears to have run into a major obstacle: Florida's tomato farmers.

The Oak Brook-based restaurant giant announced last spring that it would pay a penny per pound more to Florida field hands who pick its tomatoes, a deal brokered by former President Jimmy Carter's Carter Center. The agreement followed an earlier penny-per-pound pledge by Yum Brands Inc., owner of Taco Bell and other restaurant chains.

But Monday, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a group representing more than 90 percent of the state's tomato farmers, said the Yum and McDonald's deals "will not be executed and now are considered moot."

Even though growers aren't responsible for paying the extra penny per pound -- McDonald's and Yum are -- they object to a third party getting involved in setting pickers' wages.

The group's declaration comes seven months after McDonald's agreed to the deal but just as tomato picking goes into full swing in Florida.

"We are starting our season and we don't want any misunderstanding to occur," said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the growers exchange.

The tomato growers were not part of the McDonald's and Yum agreements, which were made with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grass-roots group representing about 3,500 pickers and taking its name from a town in Florida's tomato-growing region.

But cooperation from tomato growers is important for the penny-per-pound program to work. After all, they are the farm workers' employers, the conduit to their paychecks.

"They're not our employees, so we can't pay" tomato pickers, said Bill Whitman, a McDonald's spokesman. He said McDonald's is discussing the penny-per-pound deal with its suppliers and still plans on achieving its goals.

In a statement, Yum Brands said its agreement with the Florida tomato pickers still stands. "We think it's the right thing to do."

Tomato pickers have long been characterized as low-paid migrant workers who toil long hours in the Florida sun. The penny-per-pound deal would raise their pay by about 70 percent, the Immokalee Workers group has said. Plus, the deal was hailed as a template for improving pay and working conditions in other agricultural industries.

On Monday, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange said growers who supplied Yum Brands under the penny-per-pound deal will not do so this year. The McDonald's deal never went into effect, the exchange said.

In a press release, the exchange said its members have nixed the program because of "concerns over federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering." Brown said such concerns arose over third-party involvement in the wage-setting process.

"McDonald's doesn't allow someone down the street to establish a wage rate for McDonald's," he said. "Why would [growers] allow anyone other than their own management to set wage rates. It's nuts. ... I think there's something a little bit unAmerican about that."

Julia Perkins, a staff member for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said it's "unAmerican" to pay farm workers low wages while offering them no overtime, vacation or health insurance.

"They want to continue to have an industry based on a labor system from the past, from decades and decades ago," she said.

Perkins said her group is hoping that key tomato growers will break ranks with the association, allowing the penny-per-pound program to work.

"It's our understanding from working with Yum Brands and McDonald's that it's still going to happen," she said.

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