March 15, 2002

Migrant Farmworkers Join With Students, Activists in National Tour to Boycott Taco Bell

by Daniel Munoz

Beginning on February, 28, 2002, a caravan of migrant workers, college students and activists embarked on a fifteen-city, cross-country "Taco Bell Truth Tour" to raise awareness about the sweatshop conditions faced by migrant farmworkers in America's fields, culminating with a national protest at the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, on March 11.

The tour is the first major public actions undertaken by the tomatoe growers of Immokalee, Florida, to cast light on the multi-billion dollar fast food industry's ties to the sweatshop-like conditions faced by farm-workers.

"The tomatoes Taco Bell buys for its tacos are produced in what can only be described as sweatshop conditions," said Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the tour's organizers. "Twenty years of picking at sub-poverty wages, no right to overtime pay, no right to organize or join a union, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid holidays or vacation, and no pension is a national disgrace. We as farmworkers are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our poverty."

"Recently we read in `Nation's Restaurant News' that the major fast-food chains are getting together to draft requirements for their meat suppliers that set guidelines for the humane treatment of farm animals," added Romeo Ramirez, also of the CIW. "If Taco Bell and other fast-food giants can require their suppliers to treat their farm animals humanely, they should certainly be able to understand our call for humane working conditions as farmworkers."

Marking their third day in California with demonstrations, skit rehearsals and workshops about farmworker rights, participants of the Taco Bell Truth Tour prepared to make their voices heard by executives of the fast-food chain.

"I was already wary of Taco Bell anyway even before this boycott because I think their food is gross but now seeing how they won't give workers the raise they're asking for is horrible," said Kristen Guzman, 32, a Mexican-American and student at UCLA, who painted round-shaped poster boards red to depict tomatoes.

Guzman was one of an estimated 500 students and activists who joined Collier County farmworkers in the boycott tour, which aims at putting pressure on Taco Bell to negotiate a wage increase for laborers. The tour, organized by Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is an aggressive campaign against the corporation, which buys tomatoes from Six Ls Packing Co., a Collier-based tomato distributor.

"I see the workers are living in a state of poverty and I want to do whatever I can to stop the slavery and exploitation of workers," said Levana Saxon, 24, of Oakland, and a student performer. "I'll stop boycotting Taco Bell when the company uses its power to negotiate with tomato growers so they give workers basic rights so they can organize and raise their salary a little bit."

Carlos Lucas, an Immokalee tomato picker for the past 10 years, has hope. "I think this tour shows we don't want to be taken advantage of anymore," said Lucas, 27, originally from Guatemala, who watched the skit. "I just hope Taco Bell understands and gives us the one penny (a pound) increase we're asking for ... that's all we want."

History: Since 1997, tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida's largest farmworker community, have been organizing for the right to join in talks with the state's corporate tomato growers to find ways to improve farmlabor conditions and raise the crop picking piece rate. Despite signature drives, several community-wide work stoppages, a 230-mile march across South Florida, and a 30-day hunger strike by six members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — ultimately ended by the intervention of former President Jimmy Carter — the growers continue to refuse to meet with farm worker representatives and the picking piece rate, despite an industry-wide raise following strikes and the hunger strike in 1997 and 1998, remains nearly unchanged from pre-1980 levels.

When workers discovered that Taco Bell is a major buyer of the tomatoes they pick, they informed company executives in January, 2000 of the deplorable wages and working conditions in Florida's fields and requested a meeting to discuss possible solutions. To date, despite numerous pleas from workers and growing public pressure, Taco Bell has refused to meet with CIW representatives.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a community based worker organization located in Immokalee, Florida, the heart of the state's $500 million tomato industry. Florida is the largest producer of fresh tomatoes in the United States. Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are largely Latino, Indigenous, and Haitian farmworkers, organizing for better wages and working conditions in Florida's fields.

(Contributing to this story was Mireidy Fernandez of the Naples Daily News, Florida.)

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