JACKSON, Miss. The National Council of Churches General Assembly today endorsed consumer boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickle products, both effective immediately, to put pressure for improvement of wages and working conditions of their suppliers’ farm workers. It is the largest and broadest U.S. religious body to join the boycotts.
The National Council of Churches is the nation’s leading ecumenical organization. Its 36 mainline Protestant, African American, Orthodox and Episcopal member denominations comprise 50 million U.S. Christians in 140,000 local congregations nationwide. The actions came during the Nov. 4-6 annual meeting of the General Assembly, the NCC’s highest legislative body, made up of official delegates from the member denominations.
Given the NCC’s insistence that boycotts are a measure of last resort, the affirmative votes on the two boycotts are especially significant. It has been more than 15 years since the NCC endorsed a boycott (May 1988, related to Royal Dutch/Shell’s connections at that time to apartheid South Africa.).
The General Assembly’s action joins the National Council of Churches to a national consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products, called in March 2001 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an Immokalee, Fla.-based workers’ coalition. The Coalition launched the boycott following Taco Bell’s refusal to address exploitation in the fields of its tomato suppliers, particularly those of Six L’s Packing Company, one of the United States’ largest tomato growers.
The NCC joins the top governing bodies of three of its member denominations the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (3.5 million members), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (805,000 members) and the United Church of Christ (1.4 million members) along with the American Friends Service Committee in endorsing the boycott.
“Anytime a Christian community comes together and seeks to exercise economic justice in this way, it is because there is a very serious injustice that cannot be resolved in any other way,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who noted that the Taco Bell boycott resolution came to the General Assembly at the request of the PC(USA).
Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a Florida farm worker and member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, described farm workers’ low wages and lack of any benefits such as health insurance or overtime pay.
According to U.S. Department of Labor data, the average piece rate paid to tomato harvesters in 1980 was 40 cents per 32-pound bucket. Today, harvesters are paid the same average piece rate, earning less than one-half of what they did 20 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars. At the 40 cent piece rate, workers must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to make $50.
“And in the most extreme circumstances we find modern day slavery,” said Chavez, speaking in Spanish through an intepreter. “By modern day slavery I mean people forced to work at gunpoint. To confront this situation we’ve had work strikes, marches, hunger strikes for up to 30 days and what we’ve realized is that the agricultural industry is not interested in us. We’ve realized that the only way to achieve justice for thousands of farm workers is to reach up the ladder (to those) profiting from farm workers’ labor and poverty.” That’s where Taco Bell comes in, he said.
“We are not saying Taco Bell is guilty of slavery,” Chavez said, “but when we ask Taco Bell, ‘can you guarantee to us those tomatoes weren’t picked by slave labor,’ the answer is ‘no.’ That’s precisely because they have never paid attention to the workers who make their profits possible. That’s why I am here today.”
The Taco Bell boycott is to remain in effect “until such time as Taco Bell:
convenes serious three-way talks between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representatives of Taco Bell, and their tomato supplies to address exploitation and slavery in the fields, and
contributes to an immediate increase in farm worker wages through an increase in the per pound rate it pays for tomatoes, and
works with the CIW, tomato industry representatives and tomato suppliers to establish a code of conduct that would ensure workers’ fundamental labor rights by defining strict wage and working condition standards required of all Taco Bell suppliers.”