A Whopper of a Fight

Is anti-immigrant fervor hampering Florida tomato pickers in their battle for higher wages from the fast food giants?

click to enlarge HAVE IT HIS WAY: A protester dressed as the BK mascot. - Andrew Stelzer
Andrew Stelzer
HAVE IT HIS WAY: A protester dressed as the BK mascot.

Every morning, in parking lots and street corners throughout Wimauma, Ruskin, Dade City, Immokalee and numerous other towns throughout Florida, dozens of shadowy figures approach slowly moving vans, pick-up trucks and makeshift school buses. Their hoped-for reward: a spot in a work crew and a return home after dark with a little cash. It's a routine that has been repeated for decades, some aspects of which have remained frighteningly unchanged.

"Prices have been stagnant for over 30 years, there is no overtime, there is no right to organize, there is no sick leave, no health insurance," says Oscar Salas of Immigrants United for Peace and Freedom.

Salas knows the routine. Until a few years ago, the Dade City resident picked oranges; now he's moved into the construction business. Wages for picking oranges in Central Florida have remained stagnant for decades. At 80 cents a box, Oscar Salas says a picker could hope to earn only $50 or $60 for a 10-hour workday.

"Barely minimum wage," calculates Salas. "Besides the sun and the fatigue. And don't forget you have to get up the next day and do it again, and do it again, which makes it even worse."

A week after Thanksgiving, Salas tried to advance the cause of higher wages by marching in Miami with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a group of Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrant farm workers from the impoverished town of Immokalee, 40 miles east of Naples. Their goal: convince Burger King, which is headquartered in Miami, to raise tomato pickers' wages a penny a pound.

The CIW has reason to believe they can win this fight. After all, they have already taken on Taco Bell and McDonald's — and won.

But Burger King is proving to be a formidable opponent. And now, as presidential candidates amp up their anti-immigrant rhetoric, the CIW's agreements with the other fast food giants is endangered as well.

Friday, November 30, 10 a.m.: The CIW's march through the streets of Miami is an activist's dream-mix of demographics. Wearing yellow T-shirts with "Exploitation King" branded across the front, the marchers are white college students, out gay teenage black kids, immigrant Latin American laborers, church-going seniors and families of all colors with toddlers in tow. They're Miami casino workers, day laborer organizers from Virginia and anti-sweatshop activists from D.C. and Mississippi, all in solidarity with the farm workers.

A similar rally took place in Louisville, Ky., almost three years ago; that time the T-shirts read "Boycott the Bell." Farm workers aren't legally allowed to organize a union, so they are powerless to negotiate with growers. But the CIW knew that 80 percent of America's winter tomatoes are picked in Florida. Upon discovering that Yum Brands, Taco Bell's parent company, had bought tomatoes from an Immokalee-area grower, the CIW organized a nationwide boycott of "the Bell" in 2001, urging consumers to get their burritos elsewhere. The protest grew in size until 2005, when Yum Brands agreed to a pay increase for pickers. McDonald's signed on in April of 2007, before the campaign reached the boycott stage.

The agreements with Yum and McDonald's mandate that when the chains buy tomatoes from Florida, they will pay an extra 1 cent for every pound they purchase. The growers will then have to pass on that 1 cent to the tomato pickers who worked for them. An independent auditor oversees the process, and makes sure the money is being passed on. The agreements with the CIW also guarantee a higher standard of working conditions in the field, and direct Yum and McDonald's to investigate any violations brought to their attention by the CIW.

One payoff of the CIW's organizing strategy has been that its large mobilizations end up feeling more like family reunions than protests. After launching the Taco Bell boycott, the farm workers went on several "truth tours:" a 40-mile march and hunger strike from East L.A. to Irvine, Calif. (Taco Bell headquarters), and bus trips from Immokalee to Louisville (Yum Brands' HQ) and Chicago (McDonald's). Along the way, they would stop and speak to school groups and church congregations, and invite local activists to picket with them outside a nearby outlet of a targeted fast food chain.

"Their mission is not only about getting themselves and the farm workers a raise," says Joline Elbers, a third-year New College student who marched with the CIW in both Chicago and Miami. "It's about creating a consciousness in everybody.

"A lot of these kids are not the type to get into 'activism,'" adds Elbers, who came to the demonstration with a group of 25. During their fall break, New College students went on a field trip to Immokalee, and what they saw compelled them to get involved.

"I felt it was my obligation to come to this event," says Sam Chiron, a New College sophomore. "What sealed the deal for me was going there and seeing the actual living conditions."

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