Farmworkers get a Whopper of a win

A surprising outcome in the fight against Burger King

click to enlarge ALL SMILES: Lucas Benitez of CIW and Burger King Senior Vice President for Global Communications shake hands at a Washington press conference May 23, as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders looks on. Creative Loafing first covered the battle between farmworkers and Burger King in January. - Coalition Of Immokalee Workers
Coalition Of Immokalee Workers
ALL SMILES: Lucas Benitez of CIW and Burger King Senior Vice President for Global Communications shake hands at a Washington press conference May 23, as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders looks on. Creative Loafing first covered the battle between farmworkers and Burger King in January.

You may now resume eating your Whoppers.

In January, CL brought you the story of the South Florida farmworkers who were asking Burger King for a pay raise for picking the tomatoes that end up in the fast-food chain's burgers ("Whopper of a Fight," Jan. 9, 2008). The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has campaigned for years and gained similar concessions from Taco Bell (following a nationwide boycott) and McDonalds.

Burger King, however, was digging in its heels, and with anti-immigrant sentiment on its side, BK was steadfastly refusing to grant the pay raise.

But a series of brazen corporate blunders forced "the King" to concede right before Memorial Day, and the farmworkers are proclaiming another victory on the road to a fair food system.

The problems started in March, when BK tried spying on the Student Farm Worker Alliance, a national group of student activists who have been an important part of the CIW's campaign over the years.

Posing as a student and attempting to get on the student group's conference calls was Cara Schaffer. Schaffer claimed to be a student at Broward Community College, but was really with the Hollywood, Fla.-based private investigator firm Diplomatic Tactical Services, a company that offers among its services "covert surveillance" and "undercover operations."

It's understandable that BK was scared; during the Taco Bell boycott, students had Taco Bell outlets removed or blocked from opening on 22 high school and college campuses nationwide. But when the revelation that Burger King was trying to infiltrate a group of college kids made its way to the New York Times, the company stopped working with DTS.

Meanwhile, Burger King employees got into the undercover business themselves. E-mails to the AP, and online comments accusing the CIW of duping the farmworkers and of stealing the pay raises from the earlier agreements with Taco Bell and McDonalds, were traced back to computers at Burger King's corporate headquarters. Burger King denied involvement, saying that employees are free to do what they want at their desks and that the comments were not official company views.

As the potentially libelous Internet postings continued to pile up, a Palm Beach Post reporter called the home of Steve Grover, Burger King's vice president of food safety. Grover's daughter picked up the phone, and during the discussion she told the reporter that her dad was using her screen name ("surfxaholic36") to make comments disparaging the CIW farmworkers.

That last revelation proved to be one embarrassment too many. BK backtracked, and fired Grover and spokesman Keva Silversmith, who according to a company statement, "participated in unauthorized activity on public websites which did not reflect the company's views and which were in violation of company policy,"

After congressional hearings on the conditions of workers in the fields, and an intervention from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, BK finally agreed to cough up the approximately $325,000 it will cost to almost double the farmworkers' wages.

At a press conference on May 23, Amy Wagner, Burger King's senior vice president for global communications, announced that BK would pay the additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked.

The growers will charge an additional penny to BK's re-packers, accumulate that cost and then BK is to reimburse the growers.

The press release issued by BK featured an extremely rare example of a mega-corporation actually admitting fault for unethical tactics.

"We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW or its motives previously attributed to BKC [Burger King] or its employees and now realize that those statements were wrong. Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farm workers," said Burger King CEO John Chidsey in the press statement.

Burger King also agreed to work with the CIW to enforce a code of conduct for how workers are treated in the fields. To encourage growers to participate in the deal, BK will add on an extra half-cent per pound to pay for payroll taxes and the costs of passing on that penny, which will end up raising workers' wages from roughly $50 to $90 per day.

The struggle to actually get that money from Burger King to the farmworkers isn't over. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), a statewide industry group, had previously told its members they couldn't pass on the extra penny-per-pound from Taco Bell or McDonalds, or they would face a fine of $10,000 per farmworker. Now the FTGE has backed off on the fine, but is still advising its members not to participate in the deal with BK or the other fast food chains.

So what's next for the Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian migrant farmworkers who have triumphed in battles with three corporate giants?

CIW co-founder Lucas Benitez called on Subway and Wal-Mart to step up and use their purchasing power to help end the suffering of workers in the fields.

He also singled out Chipotle and Whole Foods as companies that "make claims of corporate responsibility but when it comes to their tomatoes, they fall short of their lofty claims."

"It's time now that those companies live out the true meaning of their marketers' words," said Benitez.

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