We have reached that point in the year when the images we are inundated with show off variations on a theme: the Norman Rockwell-esque holiday gathering. They are a testament to the ability of advertising to tug on our heartstrings as the large, joyful family sits down to a table lavishly set with the antique china, candles twinkling, and a feast spread as the Christmas meal in all its glory looms and the joy and generosity of the season is palpable.
Here in Florida, the grocery store chain Publix is as ubiquitous to holiday celebrations as pie. Publix has been a part of our Christmas celebrations for generations and yet this year impromptu runs to the family-owned grocer will simply not be an option for the Reverend Clay Thomas, or for those who stand with him.
As it turns out, earlier this year Reverend Thomas was ejected and then banned from a Sarasota, Fla., Publix.
He supports the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
For years, this grassroots farmworker group and people of faith have urged Publix to join the Fair Food Program, a statewide collaboration among farmworkers, 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers, and national corporate buyers like Whole Foods, McDonald’s, and in October, Chipotle Mexican Grill.
The CIW’s Fair Food Program drastically improves the rights and pay of Florida’s tomato pickers in an agreement the New York Times has called “possibly the most successful labor action in the U.S. in 20 years.”
Over Labor Day weekend, the CIW had just finished a peaceful picket on the sidewalk in front of Publix and Rev. Thomas — taking a break from sermon writing — stopped by to greet CIW members and convey his support before heading to the deli to buy a sandwich.
Instead, he was served a yearlong ban from the store. Publix’s labor relations manager Mark Codd had three police officers called to document the supermarket’s issuance of the trespass warning and to escort Rev. Thomas from the store.
Rev. Thomas reports he is no longer hungry for Publix subs.
Neither am I.
So, outraged, I joined more than 200 others for an interfaith assembly where we prayed and sang before walking a mile together through Sarasota’s downtown to the very Publix Rev. Thomas could not enter for another eleven months.
The signs we carried read “Our Faith is Not a Crime” and “My Faith Calls Me to Do Justice” as well as Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice ...”
Approaching Publix we put down our signs and I, along with a dozen of my clergy brothers and sisters, went inside to shop. Our list was short and intentional: Publix’s own brand of fair-trade coffee. Each bag proudly reads: “Fair Trade prices help small farmers provide employees with livable wages and work conditions. Which fosters the same values we do: community, well-being, and a nicer world.”
After checking out, we politely requested to meet with the store manager to ask about Publix’s promotion of fair pay and work conditions for coffee harvesters abroad and yet their continued refusal to do the same for their fellow Floridians, who harvest Publix’s tomatoes.
We delivered a letter signed by over 40 local clergy members to “decry Publix Supermarket’s treatment of the Rev. Thomas and its refusal to join the Fair Food Program.”
Rabbi Jonathan Katz, of Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key, then asked: If we were all free to shop that day despite our openly expressed hopes that Publix will join the Fair Food Program, then will Rev. Thomas’s yearlong shopping ban also be dropped?
The manager looked us in the eye — in our clerical collars, stoles, robes, and kippahs — and confidently said it was out of his hands, we would have to take our frustrations up with the county sheriff’s office.
The Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas, a Lakewood Ranch minister, spoke up; “That’s just not true. It was you! I’m his wife.”
She knew firsthand it was Publix – not the police — who issued the ban and Publix alone has the power to lift it.
Sheepishly, the manager acquiesced. “We decided,” he finally said, making it clear that the power to rescind the ban did not lie with the police as he had just said.
“Who is ‘we’?” someone pushed. “Me.” he quietly responded.
Suddenly, two hovering Publix corporate officials interrupted to demand that we leave immediately.
This Publix manager’s patent falsehood, told to a sizable circle of local clergy, is just another to add to a growing pile of untruths Publix has been telling to avoid signing onto the Fair Food Program, prompting the Tampa Bay Times to call Publix’s excuses for not joining “disingenuous”.
Throughout the holiday season we will gather at tables to enjoy the company of those we love and the food of our hearts. I encourage you to take a moment and give thanks for those hands who struggle day in and day out in Florida’s fields to produce the meal before you. Ask yourselves and those gathered if that meal would taste just a little bit better if it were harvested with integrity and justice and then write a letter to Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw asking him to do the right thing and join us in the Fair Food Program.
Rev. Libby Shannon is co-moderator of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and associate chaplain at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.