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.”
The tour is only the latest strategy of a dynamic grassroots organization that for the past eight years has utilized almost every social protest tactic in the book. Starting with old-fashioned community organizing, the coalition, which has met faithfully every Wednesday night since its inception, worked to improve parts of the city long neglected, pushing the county to install more street lights for safety. Then, in 1995, after one local grower tried to lower wages from $4.25 an hour to just $3.85, the coalition staged a union-style work stoppage in which over 3,000 laborers walked off the job, according to Benitez. Desperate growers eventually agreed to restore the old pay rate. A year later, the CIW grappled with the grave issue of violence in the fields. Five hundred enraged protesters marched to the house of an abusive boss, an impassioned Benitez brandishing the bloodied shirt of a worker who had been beaten on the job after asking for a drink of water. Using the courts, they successfully prosecuted two major slavery operations in southwest Florida, one of them holding more than 400 men and women in debt bondage and forcing them to work long hours under the constant watch of armed guards.
The coalition headquarters doubles as a consumer cooperative, where community members can buy food at lower prices than in the notoriously overpriced local market. Following the organizing principles first championed by the Brazilian theorist and adult educator Paolo Freire, they practice what Benitez calls “popular education” to teach workers to become politically aware and initiate change. They do not employ professional organizers; in fact, Benitez says the field workers who run the organization are called “animators” as opposed to “organizers.” They simply “animate the community to organize.”
Traditionally, labor organizing has been particularly difficult for farmworkers, a largely migrant population with seasonal employment officially excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The problems are compounded in Florida, one of twenty-two “right to work” states, where union dues are not compulsory in unionized workplaces. Thus the members of CIW have taken another route, forming a worker-led community organization.
Understanding that direct pressure on growers would have limited effect, the CIW members have demanded that one of Six L’s biggest customers, Taco Bell–which along with Pizza Hut and KFC forms Tricon Global Restaurants, a Fortune 300 company and the largest chain system in the world–pay one penny more per every bushel of tomatoes they buy. If provided to the workers, salaries would almost double, substantially improving the substandard living conditions in Immokalee.
It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work. The March 11 meeting, which came after two years of nonresponse from the corporation, is the first sign of hope. Benitez admits that where the coalition goes next “all depends on Taco Bell” but says he is optimistic, adding, “Everything is possible.”