International Human Rights day brings out 100 protesters in North Naples

"We're asking for respect," said Gerardo Reyes, an Immokalee farm worker and coalition representative. "We are an important part of the way they do business. Now, it's time that Publix recognizes that."

"We are more than willing to pay a penny more per pound if they put it in the price they set for the industry," Shannon Patten, a representative for Publix, said. "We can't pay employees of other companies directly for their labor."

— On a day set aside by the United Nations to support human rights, dozens of protesters picketed Saturday in North Naples, demanding better wages and improved working conditions.

Organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Occupy Naples, about 100 people gathered in front of the Riverchase Plaza Publix at the corner of Immokalee Road and U.S. 41 to protest in the early afternoon.

Residents, students and farm workers sought to persuade the grocery giant to sign the coalition's Fair Food Campaign, a pact that requires major buyers to pay a penny per pound premium for tomatoes and establish a fair code of conduct for crop workers.

"We're asking for respect," said Gerardo Reyes, an Immokalee farm worker and coalition representative. "We are an important part of the way they do business. Now, it's time that Publix recognizes that."

In response, Publix said that it doesn't employ the farmworkers and it doesn't get involved with labor disputes between farmers and their employees.

"Higher pay and better conditions have to be worked out between them," said Shannon Patten, a representative for the grocery chain. "That's not something that we will get in the middle of."

However, Patten said Publix will pay more if farmers "put it in the price" that they charge for produce.

"We are more than willing to pay a penny more per pound if they put it in the price they set for the industry," Patten said. "We can't pay employees of other companies directly for their labor."

The coalition contends tomato pickers are among the poorest and most abused workers in the country.

The groups arranged the protest to commemorate the United Nations designation of international Human Rights Day, which the Occupy Movement also declared as a day of global protest.

"We're honored to join them because they've done what the Occupy Movement wants to do," said Karen Dwyer, an Occupy Naples organizer and leader of the event. "We want the exact same thing. We want to make sure corporations put people before profits."

They chanted "fair wages" and "you are the 99 percent" while carrying signs that read: "human need over corporate greed" and "our sweat – not for free."

Marco resident Brian McLaren carried his sign proudly as drivers along the road honked. Others yelled, "go home!" and "low-lifes."

"We all love Publix and we're shocked to hear that they're not willing to do what's right for workers," said McLaren who has protested for the coalition for more than five years.

Jan Iserman is a part-time Naples resident who is a member of the Occupy Movement in Naples and Hendersonville, N.C. She joined the protest to support the workers and others who are struggling.

"I see my kids are doing the right things and nothing is working for them," said Iserman, who has four college-educated sons. "Half have jobs and half don't. I've never paid attention to politics, but I see their hardships, and I think it's time for change."

Several local students also participated in the protest.

Rodrigo Palacios, 22, expressed frustration with tuition hikes and his inability to get ahead because of it.

"I wanted to do sociology at FGCU, but I don't have the economic means," said Palacios who has an associate degree from Edison State College. "Even if I had the opportunity to do it a year or two ago. Now, it's impossible. The students and the youth feel it just as much as everyone else."

Carlos Suarez, a regular Publix shopper, agreed with the protesters.

"I think it's important that big companies are responsible," Suarez said while toting groceries to his car.

Large corporations, such as McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods and Aramark, already have signed an agreement to pay farmworkers more.

"Publix has become an alternative market for tomatoes that are not produced under the fair trade agreement," the coalition's Reyes said. "We're asking them to give much more strength to fair food and fair wages."

Reyes argues that workers need the assistance of corporations, like Publix, to bring about change.

"Farmers set the price but the companies they buy from hold all the power," Reyes said. "If the giants don't buy, farmers will take notice."

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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