TAMPA — Almost 1,000 members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and its supporters marched and protested through the streets of downtown Tampa on Saturday and were united by one goal: getting Publix Super Markets, Inc. to “do the right thing.”
“We want Publix to sign a fair food agreement to work with us to improve [farmworker] wages and working conditions,” said Lucas Benitez, a Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) staff member and leader, in Spanish.
After starting their marches around 10 a.m. at three different downtown Tampa Publix locations, the protesters converged around 2 p.m. at a fourth Publix located at 1313 S. Dale Mabry Highway to hold a rally and put on a pageant depicting farmworker injustice. The pageant included colorful paintings depicting farmworker hardships such as abuse, poverty, slavery and sexual harassment. In addition, the pageant actors carried field worker buckets and pretended to fill them with imaginary tomatoes.
“Their headquarters are in Lakeland, so we’re kind of here in their backyard,” Benitez said of the Florida supermarket giant.
Protesters marched up and down the sidewalks in front of Publix chanting, playing drums and holding signs that read, “Publix, fair foods start at home,” and “Buying tomatoes at Publix is not a pleasure.” Many protesters wore Publix-green T-shirts with the Publix logo on the front and poverty written below it. On the back they read, “Publix profits from farmworker poverty.” Many drivers honked in support of the protesters.
“It gives us a lot of hope” to see all these people out here supporting our cause, said Gerardo Reyes, a CIW staff member and Immokalee farmworker. “The supermarket industry has a lot of power, and they’re not using it, with the exception of Whole Foods.”
The Collier County-based CIW is a membership-led farmworker organization of mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. The organization currently boasts almost 4,000 members.
Since the Coalition’s inception in 1993, the organization has reached agreements with nine other companies in the food industry including Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Subway.
In November 2010, the CIW reached a landmark agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, and agricultural trade group, to increase farmworker wages and to clear the way for food industry giants to pass along more money to poor field pickers for their harvests.
By coming to a fair food agreement with the CIW, Publix would be consenting to two things.
“The first part is that they pay one more penny per pound for their tomatoes directly to the workers, which would provide an economic relief from 30 years of stagnant wages,” Benitez said.
“The second piece is a code of conduct that will be implemented in the fields to guarantee respect and rights for workers while they work in the fields. So for example, the code of conduct guarantees zero tolerance for sexual harassment, which is something that occurs with women in the fields pretty much every day.”
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the supermarket is unaware of a single instance of slavery existing in its supply chain and that the company currently purchases its Florida tomatoes from East Coast Growers, the grower that the CIW asked them to use.
“They just keep saying that it’s a penny more per pound,” Patten said. “And our message back to them is put it in the price of the goods. Those farmworkers don’t work for Publix, so we can’t pay them. The employers should pay wages, not those outside the employment relationship.”
In an e-mail, Patten wrote that Publix would be happy to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes. “However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor,” she wrote. “That is the responsibility of their employer.”
Patten also said that Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such despicable behavior. “If there are such grievances, we would direct those complaints to the appropriate local, state and federal government agencies,” she wrote.
Saturday’s protest in Tampa was a part of the “Do the Right Thing” tour. Demonstrators have been protesting against major grocery stores in other states such as Georgia, Maryland, New York and Massachusetts, since Feb. 27. However, the CIW has been campaigning to get Publix to “do the right thing” for more than two years.
We want Publix to “join with other leaders in the fast food industry, the food service industry and also Whole Foods,” said Benitez.
In the Whole Foods Market Blog, a blog post written by Karen Christensen explains why the grocery store agreed to a partnership with the CIW sometime in 2008.
“Farm workers and consumers are part of our communities and both groups deserve assurance that our Florida tomatoes aren’t produced under inhumane conditions,” Christensen wrote.
“Although we’re confident that our suppliers are operating within Florida law, this process helped us see that Whole Foods Market has an opportunity to proactively engage in improving the situation in Florida by creating incentives to improve conditions for farm workers. We signed an agreement to support the CIW’s ‘penny-per-pound’ approach for tomatoes purchased from Florida, with the goal of passing these additional funds on to the harvesters.”
According to a flier that protestors handed out during the demonstration, farmworkers wages are the same as they were 30 years ago. For every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, the workers are paid an average of anywhere from 40 to 50 cents depending on their level of experience and the working conditions. With those wages, the workers would have to pick more than 2 tons of tomatoes in a 10-hour workday to earn Florida’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
A ‘penny-per-pound’ agreement with all major supermarkets in the industry would probably increase the farmworkers’ annual salaries, which average between $10,000 and $12,499, by 75 percent.
Rei Falvo, a University of South Florida senior, heard about the protest through a friend and decided to participate. She said she refuses to shop at Publix and other supermarket chains like it because they turn a blind-eye to the exploitation of farmworkers in their supply chains. If Publix consented to the CIW’s fair food agreement, Falvo said she would start shopping there.
“As for now, Whole Foods is the only place that actually does this, and we’re hoping that by focusing on Publix and getting their support that the rest of the grocery stores will follow,” Falvo said.
Passerby Glen Bradley was walking his dog and stopped to observe the protest. “There’s a lot of people protesting,” he said. “I don’t see how one cent would make a difference to either party. I think they should ask for more than one cent, and I don’t see why Publix isn’t willing to pay one more cent. It doesn’t make sense.”