PHOTOS: Farmworkers picket Publix wanting grocery chain to pay more for tomatoes

About 50 farmworkers and supporters of Immokalee farmworkers picketed a Publix in Naples on Saturday morning, calling for the Florida-based grocer to pay more for tomatoes and take a stand against inhumane conditions for tomato pickers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking the grocery store chain to pay a penny-per-pound increase on tomatoes, to be passed on to the tomato pickers, similar to what several fast food chains have done in deals with the coalition.

Despite rain, protesters stood for one hour in the median at U.S. 41 in front of the Publix across from Coastland Center mall chanting, “farmworkers are people too” and “Publix Listen, we are a movement.”

The coalition has picketed, protested and received a penny-a-pound increase from major restaurant chains and other businesses such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods and Compass Group.

The group also wants Publix to adopt a code of conduct that would include a zero tolerance on slavery and for the grocer to engage in a conversation directly with the coalition, said Kim Kavazanjian, with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida and a spokeswoman Saturday for the coalition.

“Right now Publix is buying from two companies implicated in slavery case in 2008,” she said, referring to slavery victims that were taken to work on farms owned by Six L’s and Pacific Tomato Growers. The case was prosecuted last December.

“For Publix it is really very simple, to say they would like to join the fast food companies that have signed with the coalition,” she said.

Tomato pickers earn 40 cents to 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, said Cruz Salucio, 24, a tomato picker, with the help of an intepretor. He doesn’t work for any one farm now because it is planting time now.

A Publix spokeswoman, who arrived from Lakeland, said this is the first time the coalition has demonstrated outside of Publix.

“Our official position is, we don’t get involved in the middle of labor disputes between suppliers and other organizations,” said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. “We urge both groups to come to the table to find a resolution.”

Brous said Publix has over 35,000 products and couldn’t get involved in all disputes with suppliers.

About half of the 50 demonstrators were Naples or Bonita Springs residents who support the coalition.

“We would just like Publix to get on board with the rest of the purchasers like Burger King, Taco Bell and McDonald’s that have recognized there is a social responsibility,” said John Dwyer, 66, who said he has supported the farmworkers for years, even before they organized the coalition.

“They need to take a stand against modern slavery and low wages,” his wife, Karen Dwyer, 51, said.

Susan Abell, 59, of Bonita Springs, said she doesn’t know much about the coalition but wants to help with their cause.

“I believe they should be paid a minimum living wage like any one else,” she said. “It’s hard for them, they can’t get unemployment. We all have got to help each other. They have helped us all these years.”

The coalition was scheduled to protest later Saturday outside Publix stores in Port Charlotte and Venice and on Sunday in Sarasota. They plan to wrap up the weekend protest with a candelight vigil at 7 p.m. outside the federal courthouse in Fort Myers with a walk to a nearby Publix on McGregor Boulevard.

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