In a North Naples parking lot Friday morning, a dozen people gathered around a bucket of red tomatoes, judging if it was full to the brim or still a few fruits shy.
Jackie Vanden Dorpel, 76, was the first to hoist the 32-pound bucket. She lifted it to chest height.
“I would not last very long,” she joked as she set it down and stepped back.
Then Oscar Otzoy, 27, and Wilson Perez, 21, showed the group how it was done, heaving the plastic bucket in one swooping move to rest on one shoulder.
The two men, fieldworkers who spend the tomato season picking crops in Immokalee, are gearing up to bike from Collier County to Publix Supermarkets corporate offices in Lakeland beginning Aug. 27. They will be accompanied by several volunteers on the 200-mile ride to raise awareness for the “penny a pound” petition.
Area Christian leaders held two events on Friday as a send-off for the cycling team, which will include six to 10 fieldworkers and representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Once in Lakeland, the team plans to invite Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw to visit Immokalee and see the conditions for fieldworkers.
CIW is organizing the ride, which will last until Labor Day, as part of its campaign to raise the wages of field workers by encouraging increased pay from the top-down. If Publix were to accept the conditions, the Florida-based company would pay 1 cent per pound purchased from growers.
This would translate to approximately a 64 percent increase in pay for field workers, who earn 50 cents per 32-pound bucket. The extra cent would go directly to workers’ paychecks.
To earn the state’s minimum wage of $7.31 per hour in a typical 10-hour workday, field workers have to pick, de-stem, and haul more than 4,600 pounds of tomatoes in a day.
An extra penny paid for each pound, like several fast food chains and grocery stores have agreed to, would go a long way, Otzoy said, before he headed into the Publix supermarket on Neapolitan Way with religious leaders, volunteers, and CIW personnel Friday to purchase the tomatoes.
“Its about top-down pressure,” said Otzoy, who has worked in Immokalee for five years. “That’s what we want them to understand ... It would help to have savings when it gets cold. If we had a fair wage, we could better survive the cold season.”
Otzoy, Perez, and their supporters held a prayer session inside the Publix, in front of a display of tomatoes and avocados, before purchasing enough tomatoes to fill the same bucket that growers pay pickers 50 cents to fill.
That bucket cost $79.63 at the supermarket that day.
The rationale behind asking Publix, and other supermarkets like Trader Joe’s and Kroeger, to pay the penny premium is “to be part of the solution to the poverty and other human rights abuses that farmworkers face,” said Jordan Buckley, of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, an organization that works in conjunction with CIW.
Shannon Patten, media and community relations manager for Publix’s corporate office, responded to a request for comment from the Daily News by email Friday, stating: “We are more than willing to pay a penny more per pound, or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be. We suggest that they put the cost of the tomatoes in the price they charge the industry... We will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employers. Employers should pay wages, not those outside of the employment relationship.”
A 2004 Oxfam report often cited by CIW to counter Publix’s argument is that in 1990 growers received 41 percent of the retail price of tomatoes, but by 2000 that dropped to less that 25 percent.
The cycling event will take place two months before the CIW-encouraged Fair Food code of conduct and complaint resolution system comes into force for 90 percent of Florida’s tomato fields to better conditions for workers.