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LOCAL News :: Civil & Human Rights : Labor


Representatives of the South Florida based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who supply the Taco Bell chain with tomatoes, spoke alongside fellow workers and comrades in Chicago March 5.

by sketch

On Saturday, March 5, a traveling group of Florida-based farmhands representing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and allies held a forum at St. Sylverster’s Church in Logan Square. While the primary focus was on the struggle of the workers in Immokalee, Florida, who pick tomatoes for eight to 14 hours a day to supply Taco Bell, numerous speakers linked this particular struggle to other issues and a broader sense of social justice.

The forum was hosted by Dave Humphries , which began with a nonsectarian prayer by Pastor Jose Landaverde of the Amor de Dios United Methodist Church emphasizing themes of dignity, justice and unity.

Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, a CIW member, was the representative speaker. “(We are) fighting multiple abuses, but at the root were bad wages,” he said. He noted the rallies of organized workers that numbered up to 3,000.

“We found the connection between consumerism, corporations and our misery,” he said. “…Today we know we are not alone.” While acknowledging that discussions are in process with Yum! Brands, he asked the audience: “We’re all left with the question – what’s the next step?

“(This is a) struggle for the dignity and respect for all workers . . . the boycott is the beginning of a strategy. We know that we are going to win. we are going to create a historic change.”

According to a statement by the CIW issued prior to the event, “Farmworkers who pick tomatoes for Taco Bell and Yum! Brands work in sweatshop conditions, earning 40-45 cents for every 32 lb. pucket they pick – a wage that has remained stagnant for over 25 years. They must pick 2 TONS of tomatoes to earn $50 in a day, have no benefits, are denied by law the right to form a union, and often work 10-12 hour days with no overtime pay.” A video shown later provided graphic confirmation of this information.

Nicole Aro, a student at the University of Chicago (which was the first campus to eject Taco Bell from its food service in April 2002), noted that more than 20 campuses had done the same, including Chicagoland’s Loyola and Northwestern. Melody Gonzalez, a Notre Dame student and member of the Student-Farmworkers Alliance who served as translator for the forum, noted the Notre Dame abolition required several months of students hunger strikes, protests, sit-ins at the campus president’s office and letter-writing campaign to accomplish its goal.

Traveling comrade Jordan Buckley from the University of Texas-Austin, which also shut down Taco Bell due to student pressure, reported a quote from the Taco Bell website describing his generational cohort as “the new hedonism generation . . interested only in their own desires,” and the corporation’s ways to make this marketable.

Efrain Cortina, speaking alongside Jose Gomez – both striking workers of the Loop’s Congress Hotel – reported receiving a 7% decrease in wages and the twin elimination of family benefits and workers’ compensation. “We will continue our struggle until we reach our objectives,” he said. “They have the power of money, but we have the power of our hands.”

Tiffany Martinex of Student Labor Action Project and Jobs for Justice spoke of the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA), globalization and the consequent treatment of workers, quoting racial liberationist Fredrick Douglass: “Without struggle, there is no progress.” During the month of protest – March 19 to April 15 – the Congress Hotel strike will be an emphasis.

Literature and speakers demonstrated that if wages for the farmhands were increased by a penny per pound of pulled tomatoes, the workers’ income would double Workers make between 40 and 50 dollars per day; if a penny was added per pound (two tons being 4,000 pounds), that would add 40 dollars to the day’s wages. On March 11, that demand achieved victory.

The CIW’s campaign is not new. It formed in 1995, has brought down five worker slavery rings since 1999, began the Taco Bell boycott in 2001, and has held an annual truth tour since 2002. A video was shown (despite repeated technical malfunctions) which proved to be the demonstrations in Louisville, Kentucky – the site of Yum! Brands’ (which also include KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W Restaurants and Long John Silvers’) headquarters to be very exciting.

The video, entitled “Back in Immokalee,” featured testimonials from workers describing working conditions in the fields and treatment from bosses; the worker who was bloodily beaten for drinking water on the job was included.

Reyes-Chavez noted that after much resistance by Yum! executives, they eventually agreed to hold negotiations with the CIW, although the results of those talks are far from determined. After the forum and a meal at San Lucas Church,, the visitors left for Louisville to stage a week of demonstrations, teach-ins, informational campaigns, and presence outside the Yum! corporate headquarters. On March 12, a Chicagoland contingent will travel to Louisville to demonstrate in solidarity with the CIW.

As a worker appearing on the video said, “The town understands that struggle is the way to get there.”

(thanks to gigi burkhalter and jennie mutation for background information)

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