After persuading McDonald's, Whole Foods and Subway that they should pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes, a farmworkers group took on supermarket giant Publix on Friday.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a three-day rally to try to persuade the Florida-based supermarket chain to pay more for its tomatoes and to take a stand against abusive work conditions in the fields. About 150 people dressed in green T-shirts and carrying signs marched through downtown Tampa, chanting slogans in Spanish and English.
"We want Publix to take responsibility," said Leonel Perez, a 23-year-old tomato picker who lives in southwest Florida. "What we are asking is not much. We want to care for our families with dignity."
The 22-mile march ends Sunday in Lakeland at Publix headquarters. This isn't the first time the group has railed against Publix, one of the country's largest regional supermarket chains. A protest in central Florida in December drew some 500 people. The group is also urging a boycott against Publix.
"Today we are going to send a clear message to Publix," said coalition organizer Lucas Benitez in Spanish. "It's time to end the poverty facing farmworkers."
Publix said in a statement Thursday that "the CIW's complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with retailers and their customers."
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the group's call to not buy Publix tomatoes could end up hurting Florida residents and farmworkers by lessening demand for an important product. Florida provides most of the nation's domestic winter tomato crop.
Patten added that it wasn't the supermarket chain's role to negotiate tomato prices.
"That price is set by the grower or packer," Patten said in the statement. "We do not intervene in labor disputes between suppliers and their employees. Each store carries more than 35,000 different products and tomatoes are a small part of our product mix."
Coalition spokesman Gerardo Reyes said the march isn't just about the price paid to workers for picking tomatoes. It's also about how the workers are treated in the fields and why corporations should care.
"Forced labor, poverty, and abuse are all too real for Florida farmworkers," Reyes said.
The coalition wants Publix to stop buying produce from growers that don't meet certain standards for workers in the fields. The group claims it took Publix more than a year to stop buying from two Florida tomato farms where four people forced workers to pick crops and were convicted on slavery charges in 2008.
"It would be unconscionable to believe that our company would support a violation of human rights," Patten's statement said. "Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such despicable behavior."
The coalition, which claims membership of about 4,000 mostly migrant workers, gained national attention in recent years when it reached deals with fast-food chains, including McDonald's and Burger King. Its most recent deal came with food service giant Aramark, which agreed April 1 to provide 1.5 cents more per pound of tomatoes and to abide by a supplier code of conduct.
According to Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California-Davis, gaining a penny more per pound would have a significant impact on farmworkers.
"It should increase their earnings a lot," he said, estimating workers could see a 40 percent to 70 percent increase in earnings.
Although groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are pushing growers and companies to pay more to pickers, Martin said consumers probably wouldn't see much of an increase at the supermarket.
"The farm price has very little to do with the retail price, and that's true of all fruits and vegetables," he said. "On average, farmers get 20 to 25 cents of each dollar. A fraction of that goes to farmworker. For instance, the labor cost in a dollar head of lettuce usually is less than 10 cents."
Tomato pickers in Florida earn about 47 cents per 32-pound bucket. That can mean an average of about $12 an hour during the picking season for the hardest workers, usually immigrants who receive no health insurance or overtime. If all Florida tomatoes purchasers joined the penny deal, the coalition estimated farmworkers could nearly double their earnings.
Coalition spokeswoman Julia Perkins said with a penny more per pound, pickers would receive between 2.2 cents and 2.4 cents per pound of tomatoes. Still, she said it's hard to specify how much pickers' paychecks would increase because some growers might not pass along the increase.
"The idea is to get all of the buyers to do this," she said.
In addition, this year's tomato crop is not a good representative of a normal year, she said, due to cold winter weather in Florida that severely damaged the crop.
While many of Friday's protesters were field workers or students, the effort also drew others like the Rev. Charles McKenzie, a 53-year-old pastor from St. Petersburg.
"Slavery, low wages and exploitation have no place in the nation founded on the principles of treating everyone with dignity," he said.
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