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06484 September 26, 2006
'Mini-tour' targets McDonald's
Tomato pickers taking to the road to demand better pay, working conditions
by Evan Silverstein
LOUISVILLE - A small delegation of church-backed Florida farmworkers will embark on a 10-day "mini-tour" to the Chicago area next month to carry their struggle for higher wages and better working conditions to fast-food giant McDonald's Corp.
About 10 members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) (http://www.ciw-online.org/) will travel by van from Immokalee, FL, on the three-state multi-city trek, which runs from Oct. 14 to Oct. 23, with stops in Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.
Highlights will include a peaceful rally Oct. 20 outside the hamburger company's suburban Chicago corporate offices in Oak Brook, IL. Another peaceful demonstration will follow in downtown Chicago the next day, though an exact location has not been determined.
The CIW, an organization of farmworkers who pick tomatoes that McDonald's (http://www.mcdonalds.com/usa.html) uses in its products, is sponsoring the event, expected to feature national human-rights speakers, religious leaders, student leaders and musicians.
The aim is to raise awareness of the egregious conditions in the Florida fields where tomatoes are picked for McDonald's, the world's largest chain of fast-food restaurants.
"The upcoming tour is to let McDonald's know that their consumers are continuing to follow this (issue) and want the company to make the right decision to work together with the Coalition to improve the wages and conditions of the farmworkers in their supply chain," said Julia Perkins, a CIW spokesperson. "We want to get that message out there and to educate others in the community about what those conditions are so they can be educated consumers."
The Coalition, which says it seeks justice for farmworkers and promotes their fair treatment, is demanding higher wages and improved working conditions from growers who supply tomatoes to McDonald's.
The CIW wants the company to use its market leverage to force Florida growers to pay the workers one cent more per pound for tomatoes. The CIW also wants McDonald's to establish an enforceable code of conduct for growers and packers and to include farmworkers in the creation and monitoring of that code.
Florida farmworkers suffer the same miserable conditions experienced by generations of farmworkers, including forced labor and wages that leave them in deep poverty, according to the CIW. The pickers now earn 40 to 45 cents per 32-pound bucket, a rate essentially unchanged for nearly 30 years.
During the tour the tomato pickers will be joined at each stop, organizers say, by supporters including Presbyterians and other people of faith, student activists, farmers, labor groups and community leaders.
Although details are still being worked out, the event is expected to be much like others the Coalition has staged.
While in the Chicago area, the farmworkers will hold a peaceful rally outside a McDonald's restaurant at the University of Illinois-Carbondale on Oct. 16. Later there will be educational events, community forums, and worship services at schools, congregations and community centers in Champagne-Urbana, IL, and around suburban Chicago, including Oak Brook.
On the way to Illinois, the farmworkers will bring their stories of abuse and exploitation to Louisville Oct. 15 where the Coalition once held regular protests outside the national headquarters of Yum! Brands Inc., the parent company of Mexican-style fast-food goliath Taco Bell.
While in Louisville, the CIW will visit churches and hold a peaceful demonstration outside a McDonald's restaurant in cooperation with the Mexico Solidarity Network, (http://www.mexicosolidarity.org/) a grassroots organization with offices in Washington DC and Chicago that's working for economic justice and human rights on both sides of the United States-Mexico border.
A McDonald's location for the Louisville rally has not yet been confirmed, though likely will take place outside the same downtown site the CIW demonstrated at last March, Perkins said.
She said the CIW is working to firm up plans for the representatives to visit Anchorage Presbyterian Church in suburban Louisville, where they have been invited to address an adult Sunday school class.
"In Louisville we've always been just so warmly welcomed by the Presbyterian community there," Perkins said.
The CIW will conclude its tour Oct. 23 in South Bend, IN, where it will address students at the University of Notre Dame. In 2004 the university decided not to renew a sponsorship agreement that its athletic department had with Taco Bell because of concerns raised by students over the treatment of farmworkers in the taco company's supply chain.
Taco Bell lost its official sponsorship of a post-game football radio show, though it was allowed to continue advertising during televised sporting events, according to published reports.
"The students at the University of Notre Dame were hugely involved in the Taco Bell boycott," Perkins said. "They did the hunger strikes and major actions to really force the administration of their university to make a stand for human rights. So we will be updating those students on what's happening now with the campaign and getting them to take action as well."
The CIW sponsored a nearly four-year-long national consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants from April 1, 2001 to March 8, 2005, which ended with the company agreeing to pay an extra penny per pound for Florida tomatoes and to adopt a code of conduct that allowed it to drop suppliers that abused farmworkers.
During the Taco Bell boycott, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) helped arrange meetings between Yum! executives and members of the Coalition after the denomination's 214th General Assembly approved endorsing the campaign in 2002.
In February 2004, an eight-mile protest march to Yum! headquarters started at the PC(USA)'s national offices here, which, at the request of the company and the CIW, later hosted a victory celebration to mark the ground-breaking agreement and the end of the boycott.
The PC(USA) has publicly commended Yum! Brands for working as a partner with the CIW and for charting a new course for the fast-food industry. During last summer's 217th GA in Birmingham, AL, the PC(USA) reaffirmed its ongoing work with the CIW and engagement of fast-food corporations through its Campaign for Fair Food.
Presbyterians have also been active during CIW's engagement of McDonald's, participating in national letter-writing campaigns urging the company to improve wages and labor conditions for farmworkers just as Yum! and Taco Bell did.
The CIW, which has not called for a boycott of McDonald's, started pressuring the company shortly after the Taco Bell boycott ended, but talks with officials of the hamburger company have made little headway.
"We are disappointed that the company has chosen thus far not to follow Yum! and Taco Bell's lead," said the Rev. Noelle Damico, a United Church of Christ minister who serves as the PC(USA)'s Associate for Fair Food. "Daily the chorus for food that is 'fair,' and not just fast, is rising among Presbyterians and other people of faith and conscience. We hope that this tour will help McDonald's understand that their own customers want them to work as partners with the farmworkers."
McDonald's officials said that the company has joined a voluntary program that certifies producers that have "complied with all applicable laws and regulations governing employment" and that foster a work environment "free of hazard, intimidation, violence and harassment."
However, the CIW has dismissed the initiative called the SAFE (Socially Accountable Farm Employer) program, saying the 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.
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PC(USA)'s General Assembly, was among the leaders of religious and human-rights organizations that have criticized the SAFE program.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represents more than 3,000 mostly Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian farmworkers throughout Florida, eventually hopes to persuade all major fast-food companies to work with them to contribute to increasing workers' wages and to end human rights abuses in the fields as part of its ongoing Campaign for Fair Food.
On Sept. 21, a CIW team wrapped up an eight-day visit to Denver, CO, where the farmworkers took aim at another restaurant chain - Chipotle Mexican Grill (http://www.chipotle.com/).
A small group of farmworkers met with supporters and worked to build a local action committee to press the Denver-based company about conditions in the fields where it buys its tomatoes.
The CIW is scrutinizing Chipotle's "food with integrity" mantra, alleging that the company, once majority-owned by McDonald's, purchases tomatoes from farms that underpay and often mistreat their workers.
During the Denver tour, the CIW members visited Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church where they worshiped, presented at an adult education class, and met with the congregation's Peace and Justice Committee, according to Damico.
"Through worship, presentations and conversation with the farmworkers," Damico said, "Denver-area Presbyterians explored the contradictions between the exploitation of workers in the Florida fields of Chipotle's suppliers and the company's 'food with integrity' mission, which guarantees the humane treatment of animals in its supply chain. It is our hope that Chipotle will act quickly to work with the CIW to ensure that the human rights of the human beings who pick its produce are also guaranteed."
The Mexican-style restaurant chain found in 1993 specializes in gourmet burritos and tacos. It is also known for being one of the first successful chains in the newer category of fast-casual dining establishments, with higher quality and prices than traditional fast-food chains.
The first Chipotle started in Colorado, near the University of Denver and over 500 restaurants have since opened throughout the U.S..
A Chipotle spokesperson told the Denver Post that the company is being unfairly targeted because of its association with McDonald's. Chipotle went public earlier this year, and McDonald's began divesting its remaining shares of the company earlier this month through a stock exchange.
The CIW and supporters had previously written letters asking Chipotle to support improved standards for its tomato suppliers but has not heard back, Perkins said.
The CIW team was accompanied in Denver by members of the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF), (http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/index.html) a national alliance of human rights, religious, labor, student, and community organizations dedicated to the advancement of farmworkers' rights through the implementation of social responsibility in the food industry.
The AFF was officially launched in March to work in partnership with the CIW to 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 farmworkers.
The PC(USA) became a founding AFF member when the denomination's General Assembly Council voted in September 2005 to join the fair-food alliance, which includes dozens of religious organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community agencies and student and labor groups.
The first objective of the AFF was to pressure McDonald's to improve salaries and labor conditions in its tomato-supply chain.
"Wherever the CIW's Campaign For Fair Food goes the alliance has some participation by really helping to get the word out and educate consumers about how we can all work together to make fair food a reality," Perkins said.
The CIW, which has a reputation for rooting out farmworker abuse and human trafficking, has worked with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate and prosecute six cases of slavery.
Three Coalition members were selected for the prestigious 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award in recognition of their work fighting modern-day slavery.
Most recently the CIW was instrumental in helping expose abuse at two migrant labor camps in north Florida and North Carolina. Last month a federal jury found the owners of the camps guilty on multiple counts related to luring drug addicts and homeless people into indentured servitude by keeping them addicted to crack cocaine (See full story at: http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2006/06450.htm).
For more information about the CIW or the upcoming mini-tour, visit the CIW's Web site (http://www.ciw-online.org/), or the PC(USA)'s Fair Food Web site (http://www.pcusa.org/fairfood), or the AFF Web site (http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/).
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