Note #9186 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
06150 March 9, 2006
PC(USA) a founder of new fair-food alliance
Group's first goal: pressure McDonald's to improve farm labor wages, conditions
by Evan Silverstein
LOUISVILLE, KY - The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) joined a diverse network of religious, student and human-rights groups this week to officially launch a new alliance dedicated to advancing the rights of migrant farm workers.
The Alliance for Fair Food (AFF) will promote socially responsible purchasing practices among major retail food corporations, with a particular focus on improving farm labor wages and guaranteeing the human rights of farm workers.
The denomination's General Assembly Council voted in September to join the AFF.
The group's first objective will be to pressure fast-food giant McDonald's to improve salaries and labor conditions in its tomato-supply chain.
The alliance includes dozens of religious organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community agencies and student and labor groups that will work in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based farm workers group.
The AFF held a campaign kick-off on Wednesday (March 8) in Immokalee, the home of the CIW. Tomatoes used by many fast-food restaurant chains are grown near the small Florida town.
The Rev. Noelle Damico, a United Church of Christ minister who represents the PC(USA)'s Office of the General Assembly on fair-food issues, spoke at the event, which attracted about 200 farm workers, students, and community activists.
"At the heart of the Alliance for Fair Food is the truth that this struggle for human rights, while led by the farm workers, is a common struggle - one shared by consumers and farm workers alike," Damico said. "Through our purchasing decisions and public witness, we who belong to the Alliance for Fair Food refuse to remain complicit in the exploitation of our sisters and brothers who labor in the fields.
"We call upon McDonald's and other corporations to work with the CIW to ensure the real rights of farm workers in their supply chains now."
Damico said she attended the event as a representative of the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly, who was unable to attend.
In addition to the PC(USA), the founding AFF members are the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in Washington, DC; the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative; the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA); and Interfaith Action.
The AFF has been endorsed by a number of national and international organizations and individuals, including Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Amnesty International USA, United Students Against Sweatshops, author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt, and the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
Also in the alliance are the AFL-CIO, the National Farm Worker Ministry, PAX Christi USA, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Venice (FL), where Immokalee is located.
Last year the CIW successfully managed a nearly four-year-long national boycott of Taco Bell restaurants, which led to increased wages for immigrants who pick tomatoes for the company's suppliers.
The PC(USA) supported the boycott of the Mexican-style fast-food giant, which ended on March 8, 2005. That's when the CIW and Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands Inc. of Louisville, announced an agreement requiring the company to pay one cent more per pound for tomatoes and requiring suppliers to pass the increase on to the workers.
Wednesday's launching of the AFF was timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the CIW-Yum! agreement, alliance officials said. They said the AFF's goal is to see that the critical precedents achieved in the pact are extended throughout the fast-food and agricultural industries.
Three of the key precedents are economic responsibility for ending farm worker poverty; supply-chain transparency; and farm worker participation in developing a code of conduct to ensure fair pay and safe working conditions.
The CIW - which also is behind a national letter-writing campaign (See related story) to pressure McDonald's - wants to raise consumer awareness to pressure all fast-food companies.
"The Alliance for Fair Food will demand real social responsibility and real rights for farm workers throughout the retail food industry, through the sustained, creative, non-violent action of consumers," said Melody Gonzalez of the SFA. "Through the Taco Bell boycott, we took the first step toward eliminating the market conditions that have deprived and dehumanized farm workers for decades."
Despite the Taco Bell victory, many farm workers continue to toil at the bottom of the country's vast agri-food industry - earning 40 to 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket, a rate that hasn't changed significantly for almost 30 years. Workers receive no overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave or other benefits.
"The abuse of farm workers' fundamental human rights is a shameful part of this country's history, and it remains an inexcusable reality hidden behind the $100 billion fast-food industry today," said Lucas Benitez, a CIW co-founder.
The CIW, which represents more than 3,000 farm workers in Florida, mostly Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian migrants, has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate and prosecute five cases of modern-day slavery, and freed more than 1,000 workers held against their will.
The AFF will join the CIW in its effort to persuade Oak Brook, IL-based McDonald's to follow Taco Bell's example by improving conditions for the workers.
The CIW, which hasn't called for a boycott of McDonald's, started pressuring the company shortly after it reached the agreement with Yum! Brands.
The Coalition is planning a weeklong "Truth Tour" starting March 26 (See related story), to raise awareness of the egregious conditions in the Florida fields where tomatoes are picked for McDonald's, the world's largest restaurant chain.
A caravan of vehicles will leave Immokalee and head through Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on the way to Chicago, stopping for rallies at several locations along the way.
The CIW said several talks with McDonald's officials have made little headway. McDonald's representatives said the company has joined a voluntary program that certifies that producers have "complied with all applicable laws and regulations governing employment" and are providing a work environment "free of hazard, intimidation, violence and harassment."
That initiative, called the SAFE (Socially Accountable Farm Employer) program, is run by board members of two organizations: the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a growers' lobby, and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a non-profit that cares for the children of migrant workers.
Benitez said the SAFE code does nothing to address the sub-poverty wages paid to workers, and noted that the CIW was not involved in its development and still has no involvement in the program.
Kirkpatrick was among the leaders of religious and human-rights organizations that have criticized the SAFE program.
Benitez said the CIW's partnership with the Alliance for Fair Food is an important step in bringing about improved conditions in the fields.
"A new day is dawning," said Benitez, who received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Human Rights in 2003. "Consumer awareness of that abuse has grown exponentially in the past several years, and public-relations magic alone can no longer cover up the urgent need for real change.
"Only when farm workers, growers, food retailers, and consumers come together in a genuine partnership built on respect can the human-rights crisis in the fields today be effectively addressed and resolved."
For more information about the AFF or the 2006 McDonald's Truth Tour, visit the CIW's Web site, http://www.ciw-online.org, or the PC(USA)'s Fair Food site, www.pcusa.org/fairfood.
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