Getting 'Em Where it Hurts

For anybody who thinks that marching around a Taco Bell and demanding better wages for tomato pickers is a waste of time, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has news: You're wrong.

Nearly 10 months after the Boycott the Bell campaign began, the company that says it doesn't get involved in the labor issues of its suppliers is beginning to have a change of heart. Last April, the Coalition began boycotting Taco Bell restaurants, which purchase a large amount of tomatoes from Immokolee-based Six L's Packing Co. The firm employs pickers for less than a living wage and refuses to meet with the workers to discuss issues like pay and working conditions. The Coalition hoped that the taco giant would intervene on its behalf and force Six L's to behave more responsibly. Workers, students and labor activists targeted Taco Bells across the country for demonstrations and encouraged college students with Taco Bell on their campuses to appeal to school administrators to shut them down.

Much as Nike did 10 years ago, the restaurant kept silent, probably hoping the protestors would just go away.

But the boycott kept growing, aligning with other groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops and gaining attention by sending workers to speak to student and community groups.

Then the heavy hitters came on board. Trillium Asset Management is a socially responsible investment group that handles more than $600-million in client funds. Not only does the company invest in corporations that are friendly to the environment and to workers, they create consequences for companies that are not.

"We use our clients' clout as investors to hold companies accountable," says Simon Billenness, a senior analyst at Trillium.

Last November, Trillium sent a letter to Taco Bell's parent company, Tricon, asking them to do several things: open a dialogue with the growers, the tomato pickers and investors; pay a fractionally higher price for tomatoes with the total increase passed on to the tomato workers in the form of higher wages; and draft a code of conduct for Tricon's tomato suppliers that includes provisions requiring safe and healthy work conditions, the payment of a sustainable living wage and respect for the right to organize.

They got no response from Tricon.

Then Trillium joined with the Center for Reflection, Education and Action and the United Church of Christ Pension Board and filed a shareholders resolution citing their concerns in terms the company could understand. As part owners of Tricon, they expressed their concern that the companies' target market of 18-to-24-year-olds were the most likely to join in the boycott and that shareholders' earnings would be affected as a result.

"We fear that failure to address this issue puts at risk not only Tricon's brands and good reputation but also our company's future sales and profitability," the resolution stated. This moved Tricon into action. After all, these weren't just farmworkers; these were big stockholders. In exchange for Trillium taking their resolution off the table, Tricon agreed to work with them to create a code of conduct for its suppliers that would cover issues like living wages and the pickers' right to sit down with the growers to discuss working conditions. Although it will still take some time before the code of conduct is completed and enforced, the prospects look good, said Billenness: "We think this is very encouraging. We think Tricon is acting in good faith."

According to Jonathan Blum, a public relations officer at Tricon, the company has been in contact with Six L's by letter and phone, and they expect the dialogue to continue.

That doesn't mean that the matter is resolved or that the Coalition will halt the boycott anytime soon. On Feb. 28, the Coalition kicks off the nationwide Taco Bell Truth Tour at USF in Tampa. From there, they'll hit the road to tell as many consumers as possible why they should stay away from Taco Bell. The tour will arrive at Taco Bell's corporate headquarters in Irvine, Calif., for a demonstration on March 11.

"We're happy to see Taco Bell move off the untenable position that they will in no way get involved in the labor disputes of their suppliers," says Greg Asbed of the Coalition. "But we've always said that when there's concrete, measurable progress made in the areas of wages, the right to organize and other working conditions for the farmworkers who pick Taco Bell's tomatoes, then and only then, will we be happy to sit down with Taco Bell and call the boycott off."

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers' kickoff of their nationwide Taco Bell Truth Tour takes place Feb. 28 at the University Lecture Hall on the USF-Tampa campus. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a dinner with farmworkers (bring a meal). There will be a rally 7-8:30 p.m. with music, culture and a short ecumenical service. At 8:30 there will be a candlelight march to the Taco Bell on 56th Street and Fowler Avenue.

For more information regarding the Taco Bell boycott or the Taco Bell Truth Tour during the tour (Feb. 28-March 17) contact The Coalition of Immokalee Workers at 941-821-5481 or 941-285-2368. Call the Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida at 941-839-3970.

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