Arriving in San Francisco after a ten-hour drive through a snowstorm, Lucas Benitez sounds earnest and exhausted. The 26-year-old farmworker-turned-activist delivers a polished account of his cause, his tone perfected after days of traveling across country educating people about tomatoes.
Benitez is one of the founding members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (www.ciw-online.org), which has recently launched a national boycott of Taco Bell to protest its long-term “partnership” with Six L’s Packing Company, one of the largest tomato producers in the United States. They want to spotlight the miserable working conditions and widespread poverty in the fields surrounding Immokalee, the small Florida town that forty years ago was the centerpiece of Edward R. Murrow’s historic documentary The Harvest of Shame. Televised across America the night after Thanksgiving, Murrow showed the squalid living conditions of the country’s migrant agricultural laborers, declaring, “These are the forgotten people…the underprotected, the undereducated, the underclothed, the underfed.” Unfortunately, little has changed since then. Workers who plant, cultivate and harvest the state’s tomatoes are paid 40 to 45 cents for every thirty-two-pound bucket they pick, a wage that has been virtually stagnant for the past twenty years. According to a recent National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), the median personal income for farm workers is only $5,000 to $7,500 a year.
At the beginning of March, Benitez, some fifty-five fellow tomato pickers and a collection of student activists launched a fifteen-city caravan journey termed the “Taco Bell Truth Tour.” On March 11 the demonstrators arrived at the fast-food conglomerate’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California, where seven coalition members, including one student from the Student/Farm Worker Alliance, sat down with company representatives to discuss the plight of those who pick the tomatoes for Taco Bell’s 6,700 restaurants nationwide. Outside, 1,500 nonviolent protesters chanted their own version of Taco Bell’s famous talking-Chihuahua slogan: “Yo NO quiero Taco Bell!” SEIU’s Justice for Janitors, MEChA and other Latino student groups, and members of faith-based organizations participated. Benitez called the meeting “informative” and is waiting to schedule further talks while continuing the boycott and the Truth Tour, on its way now to back to Florida.
Why Taco Bell? Why a cross-country bus tour? Inspired by the example of the highly visible campaign against Nike sweatshops in Asia, the CIW is hoping Taco Bell’s 18-24-year-old target market will begin to connect the company trademark with mistreatment of labor. The CIW, formed in 1993, has recently enlisted a number of activist students to its cause, astutely recognizing the potential of the energetic anticorporate youth movement. Students working with the CIW are taking their message back to school, demanding the removal of Taco Bell Express franchises on college campuses nationwide. Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, lent his support to the boycott, saying, “Every one of our purchases is a vote, a vote for a particular company and its business practices. Do not give money to corporations that profit from the exploitation of the poor.”