The Common Good
May 2006

Blessing the Hands That Harvest

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | May 2006

How consumers and farm workers together can make a better meal.

Bumper stickers found in many college dormitories and church parking lots during the recent boycott of Taco Bell featured a Spanish-speaking Chihuahua—playing off the chain’s ads—turning down the fast- food chow to demand a penny more per pound for tomato pickers.

Heading the campaign was the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farm worker-led organization based in Immokalee, Florida, with more than 2,500 members, most of whom are Latinos, Haitians, and Mayan Indians. The nearly four-year boycott put worker concerns—low wages, poor working conditions, and discrimination—in front of many consumers and led to an agreement with Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company.

The campaign is one of several recent examples of tapping into the power of consumers. Through education, boycotts, and other methods, farm workers can make those who eat the products they grow and pick aware of the conditions they experience—and ask for their help in changing those conditions.

“The life of an agricultural worker is one of exploitation,” said Lucas Benitez, a worker and organizer with the coalition who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager. Farm laborers work long hours, with no benefits, health care, or overtime pay, he said. “The imbalance of power is tremendous.”

The agreement reached by the coalition and Yum! Brands established important precedents of increasing wages coming down the supply chain and involving workers in the monitoring of conditions in the fields, said Brigitte Gynther, an organizer with the coalition. The change for workers has been immediate, Benitez said, after more than 20 years of receiving the same salary. Each week, he said, “depending on how much they harvest, they receive between $15 and $40 more.” Also essential, Gynther said, are the safeguards against what the coalition believes to be inhumane working conditions the pickers have suffered.

A number of workers are coerced into working through threats and use of violence, the coalition’s Web site states. The coalition has struggled to eradicate this modern-day slavery, Benitez said, and has brought five cases to the Department of Justice in the past six years.

Rev. Noelle Damico, a United Church of Christ minister who represents the Presbyterian Church USA in the coalition’s campaign for fair food, said churches were key to the success. The workers “were very strategic. They built partnerships with people of faith who were consumers and with students who were the target market to amplify their voice. They caused the church to think again, ‘What is our responsibility with farm workers, as consumers?’”

THE COALITION IS hoping to use the precedents that have been set to pressure other fast-food purchasers, Gynther said. The next targets are Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s. Subway and Burger King have not responded to the coalition’s letters, while McDonald’s has agreed to meet with members of the coalition, Gynther said, but is not meeting their demands.

The fast-food industry needs to act responsibly toward workers, Benitez said, “since we pick tomatoes for them. McDonald’s and Chipotle have elevated standards for care of animals. Chipotle says that they use free-range animals. But they don’t have elevated standards for the workers who pick their tomatoes.”

McDonald’s corporation states on its Web site that “suppliers should share our commitment to socially responsible conduct.” The company has codified its expectations—applicable globally—including prohibitions on forced labor, child labor, and discrimination.

Gynther said McDonald’s is marketing the code as new, recognizing that customers are calling for ethical purchasing. “They are saying, ‘Our growers have new standards and new practices,’ but most of those are already required by law,” she said. “Right now it’s just a PR campaign. You can’t just say you’re going to be socially responsible, you have to do it.” Gynther said another major problem is that McDonald’s does not want to involve workers in the monitoring of field conditions.

This spring, the coalition is calling on supporters to take letters to their local McDonald’s restaurants to demand that McDonald’s work with the coalition to reach an agreement on increased wages and improved working conditions. If that is not successful, they may consider another boycott, said Luis Fernando Gomez, an organizer with Student/ Farmworker Alliance, based in Immokalee.

Farm worker-led boycotts, raised to national recognition by Cesar Chavez in the 1970s and ’80s, must include a number of strategic considerations, organizers said. Gomez said the focus on students is key. “[Boycotts] are only effective if we have the support of the core people who the fast-food chains market to,” he said. “They call the 18 to 24 [age] group the ‘fast-food sweet spot.’”

Emily Harry, an organizer with Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, which works closely with the coalition, said having workers tour the country and meet with activists, students, and people of faith—as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers did—helps motivate support. “When there is a direct connection with the workers, people are more likely to boycott,” she said.

She cited the Mt. Olive pickle boycott as another campaign involving consumer action. “It took four years, but when their sales started dropping, they went to the table with workers.”

Harry said making the connection between worker wages and shopping choices is elemental to her faith. She said in her household people value organic food, but she believes it should not be at the expense of the farmers, pickers, or grocery store employees. “I think that those movements aren’t quite in sync,” she said. “So [I’m] looking for fair trade and organic, not just organic.”

IN A WORLD WHERE each of the ingredients in a product may come from a different source, purchasing only from companies that meet a consumer’s environmental, nutritional, and labor concerns can be a difficult task.

Threemile Canyon Farms of Boardman, Oregon—which supplies the potatoes and milk in McDonald’s french fries and cheeseburger cheese, Tillamook County Creamery’s dairy products, Kettle Foods potato chips, and Costco’s milk—uses environmentally friendly models to recycle farm waste, yet it has been accused by some of its employees of treating workers like garbage.

The 93,000-acre farm—which employs between 300 and 700 people annually—treats “the land, workers, animals, and the community with respect,” said Len Bergstein, a Threemile Canyon spokesperson for corporate social responsibility. With 1,500 acres of organic crops and roughly 40,000 cows, Threemile wants to “bring the best of science and nature together” by creating a closed loop system in which waste from one process feeds the other: Potato plants and peels become bedding and food for the cows, and manure is composted to fertilize the vegetable fields.

Yet the picture of harmony between land and people is a mirage when it comes to workers’ rights, according to Rev. Steve Witte, director of the Oregon Farm Worker Ministry, part of the St. Louis-based National Farm Worker Ministry. “The farm claims to be this environmental model of the future. If that’s the future, then it’s a nightmare,” he said.

Witte has been partnering with workers during their three-year campaign to expose what they believe are human rights abuses, and to unionize with the United Farm Workers. “Although the workers at Threemile Canyon are paid more than many other farm workers in Oregon, the abuses are just abysmal,” Witte said. “Money isn’t the primary issue. It’s human respect and dignity.”

Among the abuses Witte cited were sexual discrimination, both in not hiring women and in disparaging comments made to men. Workers are asked to kill male calves—not valued on a dairy farm—with ball-peen hammers. When workers asked for a more humane way to kill the animals, supervisors ridiculed their masculinity, Witte said. Workers are also harassed because of union activities, he said, recalling that one worker was compelled to weed without tools in high desert heat for supporting the union. Witte has also heard supervisors use ethnic slurs against Mexican workers.

Tillamook and Costco have taken a role in trying to leverage change in worker conditions, Witte said. Tillamook has asked the farm to sit down with the United Farm Workers union, while Costco has offered to broker talks between the union and the dairy.

Workers have the right to form a union, said Bergstein, but Threemile prefers it to be by secret-ballot election. The union favors a card check, in which workers would designate the union as their collective bargaining representative through signing forms or cards.

In the sexual discrimination suits, Bergstein said the problem was “word-of-mouth hiring” that “led to a predominantly male workforce.” The hiring practices have since been more structured and the problem has lessened, he said.

Seeing the farm’s steps as inadequate, Oregon Farm Worker Ministry and supportive churches have continued to campaign for changes in working conditions, pressuring the farm’s main creditor, the San Francisco-based Bank of the West, to call on Threemile to change its treatment of workers. The bank is also a major lender to religious institutions, so the National Council of Churches, state associations of churches, dioceses, and individual congregations have supported them in the effort, Witte said.

Though there are many strategies in farm worker rights campaigns, consumer participation is needed for success, according to Benitez. “Every time you eat a tomato, it is pitiful that you don’t know whether the tomato was picked by someone free from slavery,” he said. People of faith “need to be responsible consumers, to resolve to challenge corporations on these abuses.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank is editorial projects assistant at Sojourners.

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