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Boycott the Bell!

September 14, 2001 | Page 5

This special feature was written by Steven Damewood, Evan Kornfeld, Stuart Easterling and Fidel Belmont.

The struggle to end sweatshops in the fields
Profiting off misery in Immokalee
Telling the truth about Taco Bell
"Our job is to wake people up"

FARMWORKERS FROM Southern Florida will hit the road this month for a nationwide Taco Bell Truth Tour. The Taco Bell chain is a major part of Tricon Global Restaurants, a $22 billion multinational that claims to be the "world's largest restaurant system."

Taco Bell raked in $5.2 billion in sales in 1999, contributing to Tricon's $1.2 billion in operating profits. Meanwhile, farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla., who pick the tomatoes that go into Taco Bell products are lucky to make $7,500 for an entire year of backbreaking labor.

Taco Bell says that this is none of their business. The restaurant chain buys its tomatoes from Six L's Packing Co., which runs the fields in Immokalee, and Six L's decides what to pay farmworkers, say Taco Bell's spokespeople.

But the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) isn't buying it. The organization, formed seven years ago by farmworkers themselves, has a simple case to make. If Taco Bell paid just one penny more per pound for the tomatoes it buys, and this money was passed on to pickers, it would double their income overnight.

People around the country have taken up the CIW's call to boycott Taco Bell to up the pressure. They'll join Florida farmworkers at stops across the U.S. on the Truth Tour--culminating in two days of protest at Taco Bell's Irvine, Calif., headquarters on September 23 and 24.

Socialist Worker looks at the consequences of Taco Bell's corporate greed--and the fight against it.

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The struggle to end sweatshops in the fields

CORPORATE GIANTS like Taco Bell don't want us to think about the food that they sell us. But a lot of it has to be grown and harvested--in fields where farmworkers labor long hours in the sun, with few breaks, little drinking water and no protection from ruthless companies that will do anything to keep wages down and profits up.

In southwestern Florida, as in many other parts of the country, the people who harvest the food on our tables often struggle to feed their own families. A Department of Labor report released earlier this year found that three out of five farmworkers nationwide live below the poverty line. Over the last decade, their real wages actually fell by 5 percent on average, the study found.

That's a reality that tomato pickers in Immokalee know well. The southwestern Florida town on the edge of the Everglades is at the heart of the state's agriculture industry--which ranks second only to tourism.

Traditionally, farmworkers are paid according to how much they pick. The current rate--40 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes that they fill and haul--has barely changed in 20 years.

Because of inflation, farmworkers today have to pick nearly twice the amount of tomatoes that they had to in 1980 to get to the legal minimum wage. Companies like Six L's think they can get away with this because the workers they employ are largely immigrants--many of them undocumented.

But in Immokalee, they're facing a challenge. Farmworkers came together seven years ago to form the CIW to fight poverty wages and horrible conditions.

In 1995, when growers tried to slash wages and cut the rate for pickers to just 10 cents a bucket, the CIW organized a strike of 4,000 farmworkers that forced the growers to back down. That action gave farmworkers increased confidence to challenge harassment and violence from supervisors in the fields.

In 1997, the CIW took the offensive with a campaign for a living wage that included work stoppages, marches on the state capitol and a hunger strike. The tactics were so effective in mobilizing public pressure that even Florida Gov. Jeb Bush publicly backed the farmworkers.

The campaign won the first real wage increases for farmworkers in almost 20 years. But when the CIW called for the right to collective bargaining, Bush began singing a different tune, helping the growers to fight efforts to unionize.

The CIW took its struggle national earlier this year by going after the huge multinationals that buy their produce from growers like Six L's in Immokalee. The group is now focusing on Taco Bell--to demand that America's corporate giants put an end to sweatshops in the fields.

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Profiting off misery in Immokalee

TO LISTEN to Taco Bell, you'd think that this corporate giant was an innocent bystander in the exploitation of farmworkers. But the connection is very direct.

Immokalee farmworkers are paid just over 1 cent for every pound of tomatoes they pick and haul. Companies like Six L's then sell the tomatoes for 30 or 35 cents a pound. But corporations like Taco Bell buy such an enormous amount of tomatoes from Six L's that they pay far less.

Taco Bell is a corporate high flyer--thanks to the miserable wages paid to farmworkers and the equally low wages for servers and cooks in Taco Bell restaurants.

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Telling the truth about Taco Bell

SINCE THE CIW organized its first picket in the Boycott the Bell campaign in April, more than 55 actions--and counting--have taken place across the country.

In Auburn, Ala., a spontaneous Take Back the Streets action put together by 70 participants of the Southern Girls Conference took over a local Taco Bell. In Knoxville, Tenn., a picket of a Taco Bell organized by Jobs with Justice and the UNITE textile union drew 40 people--prompting managers to call in the police.

Students and anti-sweatshop activists in Los Angeles began organizing pickets in the summer at a Taco Bell restaurant in East LA. Protesters showed up each week with tomato-shaped signs that read "Support Farm Workers" and "Boycott Taco Bell"-- and a 10-foot banner featuring an angry Chihuahua dog, like the one featured in the company's commercials, declaring "Yo No Quiero Taco Bell!"

At one action, the restaurant's manager recognized four young skateborders who were holding picket signs. "You eat here every day," the manager complained. "Not anymore!" one of the youths replied.

Now activists are reaching out to a wider audience to build for the days of protest at Taco Bell's headquarters. The Coalition for Human Rights of Los Angeles has contacted local unions and community-based groups to join in the march and rallies on September 23 and 24. Members of Students for Social Justice at Pasadena City College are organizing high school students to mobilize for other pickets against Taco Bell.

These activities show that activists are fed up with the greed of corporations like Taco Bell. It's time for them to pay!

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"Our job is to wake people up"

FRANCISCA CORTEZ and ROMERO RAMIREZ are members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They talked to Socialist Worker about their struggle.

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WHY DID farmworkers form the CIW?

Francisca: Because of the many problems we face in the fields. There's physical abuse by foremen. One worker once came to us, and he was bloody from a beating he received.

They don't have enough water in the fields for you to drink. You work bent over all day with no breaks. You get just half an hour for lunch, and then they rush you back to work.

And there's no guaranteed work each day. You get up at four or five in the morning, and if they don't like you or you didn't work hard enough the day before, they say, "There's no work for you today."

WHAT IMPACT has the CIW had in Immokalee?

Romero: Workers come to us with their grievances, especially around unpaid work. We've been able to contact and pressure their bosses around these cases, so that workers get their paychecks. We had a very successful march on the state capitol in Tallahassee, which also brought to light many of the conditions faced by farmworkers.

Francisca: It's our job to wake up the other workers. We've had marches, protests, and hunger strikes.

We haven't yet succeeded in forcing higher wages for farmworkers. But today, the bosses can't really get away with saying "I won't pay you" or "There's no check" any more.

There's less physical abuse because the growers know that there's an organization taking up the demands of workers.

WHAT ARE your future plans?

Francisca: We're targeting Taco Bell, but the bosses say that they don't want to meet with us, so we're organizing a tour of the U.S. to promote the campaign.

We're asking for just one cent more [per pound of tomatoes] from Taco Bell. Taco Bell won't really lose anything, but there's still no dialogue.

Romero: We're hoping that the biggest buyer of the tomatoes we pick is willing to negotiate with us. The purpose of the tour is to get the truth out about the conditions in Florida--the low wages and the working conditions.

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