ORLANDO, Fla. - Around 80 people, many of them from faith communities, rallied here Feb. 2 outside a downtown Publix supermarket. The purpose was to pressure the giant grocery store chain into signing an agreement with the South Florida farmworkers who harvest the tomatoes that it sells.
Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), faith-based groups, students and community residents marched, chanted and held signs with slogans such as "Publix Profits from Farmworker Poverty." The CIW also had a banner reminding the company of the words of its founder, George Jenkins: "Don't let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing."
The protest was the culmination of a workshop, "Working Together for Farm Worker Justice," held the same day at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando by the CIW. The group works to improve wages and working conditions for its 4,000 members, mostly Latino immigrants in the Immokalee, Fla., area, which produces 90 percent of U.S. winter tomatoes.
The Unitarians wore yellow T-shirts bearing the logo Standing On The Side of Love, a group sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association. The group encourages its members "to stand up whenever we see acts of oppression or bullying," said the church's minister, the Rev. Kathy Schmitz.
"Knowing that our brothers and sisters who are farmworkers are not being treated fairly - their working conditions are abhorrent, we're standing with them today," said Schmitz.
If Publix joins the coalition's Fair Food Program that would be a breakthrough for the CIW. It would extending the campaign to the supermarket sector of the agricultural-industrial complex - in this instance, a company with around 1,100 stores in the Deep South and $27 billion in sales in 2011. Nearly a dozen fast-food chains, food-service companies and natural food store chains have signed up with the program since 2001.
Growers in the Immokalee area pay harvesters around 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes that they pick - a rate that the CIW says has remained virtually unchanged since 1980. Those participating in the Fair Food Program pay an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes harvested by CIW members, with that money providing a pay raise for the harvesters.
The growers also agree to abide by a code of conduct that aims "to eliminate modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry as well as sexual harassment, which has also been rampant, and many other abuses," said Oscar Otzoy, a Guatemalan immigrant and CIW member.
The CIW reports, "in addition to grinding poverty, Florida farmworkers have long suffered some of the worst working conditions of any job in the country. Wage theft, verbal and physical abuse, and sexual harassment are common. This climate of poverty and powerlessness gives rise to the most extreme labor rights violation: forced labor." The CIW notes that since 1997, the U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted nine forced labor operations in Florida, involving more than 1,200 workers.
The CIW has held numerous actions at Publix stores in Florida and the rest of the Deep South since its campaign against the company began in 2009.
Although the farmworkers are part of its supply chain, Publix continues to maintain that it has no responsibility to help them.
"This is a labor issue between the farmworkers and the growers," said Dwayne Stevens, a Publix spokesperson "We would pay the [extra] penny per pound if it's placed in the price of" the tomatoes. Publix has also, so far, refused even to meet with the CIW to discuss its demands.
"A labor dispute implies a kind of animosity," said the Rev. Kathy Schmitz, of the First Unitarian Church. "The workers are asking for a partnership [between them, the growers and Publix] that benefits everyone, including those who right now, like Publix, are acting in the role of oppressor."
During the action, a delegation met briefly with Paul Bracker, manager of the downtown store, and presented him with several thousand petition signatures gathered by the CIW's faith-based allies urging Publix to join the Fair Food Program.
Oscar Otzoy, of the CIW, told the post-protest rally "this struggle will continue until we reach true victory, until Publix does the right thing [and] recognizes the humanity of us, the workers. We know it will come one day."
Several other groups participated in the action. They included Interfaith Action, of Immokalee, which works to build support for the Fair Food Campaign within faith communities; International Justice Mission, a faith-based group which works to rescue victims of slavery and sexual exploitation; Dream Defenders; the Student-Labor Action Project at the University of Central Florida; YAYA (Youth and Young Adult Network, of the National Farmworker Ministry); and the Hope Community Center, of Apopka, Fla.
From March 3-17, the CIW will hold "The March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food," a 175-mile trek from Fort Myers (on Florida's southwest coast) to Lakeland, Fla. (about 55 miles southwest of Orlando). The march will end with an action at Publix's home office in Lakeland.
Photo: Ben Markeson/PW