Protesters march to Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California.

No Quiero Taco Bell!

David Bacon interviews Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

BY David Bacon

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While the South is still the most hostile terrain for workers and unions in the United States today, the region increasingly has become a battleground for militant labor struggles. One of the most notable efforts comes from an area where involuntary servitude is still a living reality—the Florida Everglades.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a farmworker organizing project there, based among immigrant Mexican, Central American and Haitian laborers. Utilizing the organizing traditions those workers have brought with them to the United States, the CIW has challenged the local growers as well as the fast-food industry that buys their produce.

The coalition has specifically targeted Taco Bell, arguing that the company has grown wealthy by keeping down the price of tomatoes used on its tacos and nachos. While their wages are not determined directly by Taco Bell, the farmworkers argue that the company is ultimately responsible for the miserable conditions in Florida’s fields.

In March, 1,500 protesters—including the farmworkers, other union members and students—marched through the streets of Irvine, California, and brought that message to Taco Bell’s imposing blue-glass corporate tower. Following the march, Lucas Benitez, a CIW leader, explained why consumers should think twice about labor strife before they bite into their next chalupa.

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The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is named for a town in Florida?

Immokalee is in southwest Florida, in the middle of the Everglades. It’s a town made up of agricultural workers, most of them immigrants—low-paid workers. The bulk of these workers are Mexican, Haitian and Guatemalan. In some ways, it’s more a labor reserve than a town, an unincorporated area where the population nearly doubles to 30,000 people during the season when the growers need workers.

Every day here, thousands of people wake up at four in the morning to beg for a day’s work in the central parking lot in town. And every Friday, they get checks from three or four different companies. No company has a fixed work force. But the Immokalee area is one of the most important agricultural areas of the United States, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, a great deal of which is used by the fast-food industry. It’s one of the most productive agricultural regions because of its ideal climate. Oranges and tomatoes are the two largest cash crops.

What is life like for Florida farmworkers right now?

Florida is one of the most backward states in relation to organizing agricultural workers. Many people may remember Harvest of Shame, [Edward R. Murrow’s 1960] documentary that dramatized the horrendous conditions facing workers in the fields. More than 40 years later, all that has changed are the faces.

During the past five years, we have taken before the Department of Justice documentation of three slavery operations existing in our midst. One employer, for instance, held more than 400 people in bondage, forcing them to work 10 to 12 hour days, six days a week, for as little as $20 a day. They were watched by armed guards in both the fields and camps. After years of investigation, two crew leaders were sentenced in 1997 to 15 years each in federal prison. Another employer is serving three years for having held some 30 other workers in two trailers in a swamp near Immokalee. The third case is still under investigation.

What has the CIW been able to accomplish in terms of actually changing the conditions of Florida farmworkers?

When we started, the piece rates hadn’t been raised for over 20 years. Our most significant accomplishment has been helping to get an industry-wide increase from 13 to 25 percent, not just here, but all along the East Coast. We’ve stopped the non-payment of wages and violence against the workers, and freed hundreds from debt bondage. And the state of Florida has budgeted more than $15 million for the construction of farmworker housing. And we’ve done this work in solidarity with other community organizations and unions in Florida. Hopefully, that means we’ve contributed to creating a stronger movement for all workers in the South, not just ourselves.

Benitez chanting and holding a sign.
Benitez (left) and the Florida farmworkers are “tired of subsidizing Taco Bell’s profits with our poverty.”
How has the climate for organizing workers changed in the South?

Despite its well-earned reputation as hostile territory for labor, the South is home to several of the most militant organizing efforts in the country today, including the fight of the Charleston longshoremen and our own campaign here in Immokalee. Creative, community-based and highly politicized organizing campaigns are increasingly common, including Unite for Dignity in Miami, Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, and the Miami Workers Center. These all display a grassroots militancy growing up in the heart of the South. In some ways, the South’s anti-labor atmosphere actually made these new aggressive organizing tactics necessary to shift the balance of power between workers and their employers and win even the most modest changes.

The South has undergone a dramatic shift in population that has transformed its labor force, especially the low-wage work force. In some ways, the South has more in common now with 21st-century Los Angeles than it does with 1960s Montgomery. That doesn’t negate the importance of black workers here. It simply means that there is an important new issue in the Southern reality—the rapid and widespread influx of immigrant workers.

The CIW has become well-known for using the organizing traditions workers bring with them from their countries of origin. Have you found that this provides a way of organizing workers who, in the eyes of a lot of the labor movement, are considered almost unorganizable?

We are rooted in the concept that we are worker-led. Each and every one of us is a leader, and we have to have ties, deep roots in the community. We use the method of popular education to tie us to all the different communities that exist in Immokalee. It’s a method strongly rooted in Mexico, Guatemala, Central America, South America, the Caribbean. …

Our theme is that consciousness plus commitment equals change. Though many of the workers cannot read, we use methods that are appropriate, such as movies, popular theater and cartoons and drawings, which enable everyone to reflect upon their lives, upon their situation, and to understand more clearly what is happening around them.

Some of the tactics the CIW uses, like strikes, are similar to other unions. In what ways is the CIW different from a traditional union?

The CIW is a community-based labor organization. We carried out three community-wide general strikes—in 1995, 1997 and 1999. We organized a month-long hunger strike in 1997-1998 by six CIW members and a two-week-long march across southern Florida. And most recently, we took two buses of farmworkers and supporters on a cross-country caravan, the “Taco Bell Truth Tour.” We’re not a top-down organization. All these actions really depend on the rank and file, the grassroots. Where we differ from many unions is that we operate from a basis of constant political education of our members. We also take on community issues, like housing or police misconduct, as an integral part of our work.

Who are the growers in southern Florida?

When we talk about the growers here, we’re not talking about a family rancher with 200 or 300 acres. We’re talking about big business. These are large, multinational corporations that go all the way from southern Florida up the East Coast to Pennsylvania. Gargiulo produces all the way up the coast and in California as well. The company was the main target of the United Farm Workers in its strawberry campaign in Watsonville. Six L’s Packing Company is another one. The corporations here have land in Puerto Rico and some produce in Mexico as well.

So why has the CIW targeted Taco Bell?

We think Taco Bell should take responsibility for the conditions under which the tomatoes for their chalupas and their tacos are grown and harvested. This is really no different from the conditions of Nike workers in Asia.

Taco Bell has a lot of leverage. Just a simple phone call to the growers here to say, “You’ve got to resolve the situation of the workers; you’ve got to improve their conditions,” would change everything overnight. Growers here don’t want to lose their multibillion dollar contracts with Taco Bell.

We’re asking for just one cent. If Taco Bell paid one additional cent per pound of tomatoes, and that money were funneled directly to the workers, the piece rate for tomatoes we pick would nearly double. Right now we get 40 to 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes.

Taco Bell has not only the responsibility to do what is right, it has the power to do it. It is a multinational corporation with $5.2 billion in annual sales, and is part of Tricon, the world’s largest restaurant system, with $22 billion in annual receipts. Taco Bell’s tremendous global revenues are based on cheap ingredients for the food they sell, including cheap tomatoes picked by farmworkers in Florida who are paid sub-poverty wages. We are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell’s profits with our poverty.

So what does Taco Bell say?

They tell the media they are not getting involved, because they are not dealing directly with the relations of production in the field. So they don’t involve themselves in what they call “labor disputes.” But we have to remember that those were almost the exact same words used by Nike [about sweatshops in Asia].

Maybe Taco Bell is also worried about who works in Taco Bell franchises. They’re almost all young people working for minimum wage, and there’s not a union in sight. Workers in Washington, Oregon and California have filed class-action suits over unpaid wages.

If customers of Taco Bell understood that if they paid one penny more for a taco or chalupa—more than covering the one cent increase per pound of tomatoes that would double the wages of workers in Florida—wouldn’t almost every customer be happy to pay?

We are confirming that through our own work. We’ve forged an alliance with students, and they’re some of the largest consumers of the tacos and chalupas. They understand that one cent could benefit us, and they’ve helped and supported us. But we have to change the whole mentality of the corporation as well.

David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

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