A Penny for Our Work: Florida Farmworkers Protest Grocer

Emily Udell

Stephanie Bates (C) and Hannah Sassaman (R) join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a protest march against Burger King November 30, 2007 in Miami, Fla.

Farmworkers in South Florida took to the streets over the weekend as part of a continued campaign to convince the state’s largest grocer to pay a penny more per pound for their tomatoes.

Hundreds of members of the Coalition of the Immokalee Workers and their supporters demonstrated for nearly five hours on Sunday to ask Publix to help improve wages and conditions for Florida farmworkers. Protesters carried signs bearing messages like End the Poverty” and Publix: Where the Harvest of Shames Continues.” (Here’s a photo gallery from the protest.)

The coalition began writing letters earlier this year, urging Publix to work with the coalition to improve conditions for the workers who supply the tomatoes they sell. Last weekend’s protest in Lakeland, Fla. — where the grocer is headquartered — was the latest in a series of demonstrations in front of the company’s stores.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten has attempted to wash the firm’s hands of any responsibility for the treatment of tomato pickers by saying:

This is a labor dispute between the farm workers and the farmers, and not something Publix is going to get involved in… It’s disappointing that they want to tarnish our reputation.

The Immokalee Workers point out that Publix has continued to buy produce from supplier Pacific Tomato Growers — two of that company’s operators were convicted on slavery charges and two others convicted of lesser charges last year. Twelve immigrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala were beaten and forced to work on their farms between 2005 and 2007. Publix has said it expects its suppliers to follow the law.

The slavery problem is, sadly, all too common on Florida’s agricultural fields. Since 1997, seven cases involving more than 1,000 workers have been prosecuted in the state, according to the CIW. Many more instances of abuse undoubtedly go unreported or unprosecuted.

More than 1,000 Publix stores are spread out throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. The company is owned by its approximately 142,000 employees and touts its commitment to community service on its website. But if it was such a good corporate citizen, why has it failed to negotiate with CIW?

CIW is also fighting an ongoing battle to convince Chipotle to negotiate as well, which we blogged about here at Working ITT. Since 2005, the coalition has successfully reached agreements with several other major companies: McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Yum Brands (owner of Taco Bell) and Whole Foods. Hopefully this recent demonstration will convince Publix should follow suit.

Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.
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