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Protestor,  Jacques-Jean Tiziou /
Society and Community:
The Battle Fields
More on This Story:
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers vs. Taco Bell

It's the dirty little secret of our fast food nation: the people who pick the cheap fruits and vegetables we enjoy every day are among the worst paid workers in America. According to a 2000 survey by the Department of Labor, 61 percent of all farmworkers have incomes below the poverty level. For the past decade the median income of farmworker families has remained less than $10,000.

So how did a small band of immigrant workers pressure the largest fast food company in the world to do something that could help transform these workers lives? NOW tells the David vs. Goliath story of a group of Florida tomato pickers that went toe to toe with a corporate giant and won. These workers fought an incredible four-year battle against Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum! Brands, to improve their working conditions and wages. Their success may have sparked a nationwide movement.

ONLINE ONLY: Photographer Jacques-Jean Tiziou narrates a photo essay of his images of the CIW's Truth Tour.
Photo Essay

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a community-based worker organization. Its members are largely Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. The group began in 1993, when a small group of workers met to discuss how to improve their working conditions.

The CIW uses long-tested forms of community action — including three general strikes, an unprecedented month-long hunger strike by six of members in 1998, and an historic 230-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000. The Coalition numbers among their victories an industry-wide raise of 13 to 25% which returned the piece-rate for picking tomatoes back to the levels held before 1980. According to THE WASHINGTON POST, farmworkers today usually earn 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, the same rate as 30 years ago, and have to pick 2 tons of tomatoes to earn about $50. (Learn more about the history of protest in America.)

Boycott the Bell Movement

In 2001, the Coalition inaugurated a new strategy — targeting the end purchasers of the tomato crop rather than the farmers paying the wages. If the CIW could win an increase for the farmers, the farmers could in turn increase the piece-rate pay of the field laborers. Their request? One penny more per pound of tomatoes. So, four years ago CIW launched a national boycott of Taco Bell, which buys 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes a year. In addition to winning a pay increase, the CIW boycott aimed to get the corporate giant (part of the Yum! brands group) to "take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked." The rationale of the CIW was that if they could pressure an industry giant to use its market power to raise prices for fresh produce rather than holding them down it could set an industry precedent. (Read a history of successful boycotts in history.)

Going after the same group targeted by fast-food giants like Taco Bell, the CIW took it's "Boot the Bell" campaign to the nation's colleges and high school campuses. With the aid of the Student/Farmworker Alliance the CIW mobilized on 300 college campuses and 50 high schools. At the end of the campaign the actions had resulted in 22 high schools and colleges cutting contracts or preventing new contracts with Taco Bell. Among the campuses, — UCLA, University of Chicago, Notre Dame and University of Memphis. (See a complete list of the "Boot the Bell" school successes.)

In 2003, the CIW organized one of the largest hunger strikes in U.S. labor history outside of Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California. Over 75 farmworkers and students fasted during the 10-day period. In 2004 and 2005, the group organized cross-country tours, called "Truth Tours" which featured marches and protest as well and highly visible actions at corporate headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and Irvine, California. In the process, the CIW gained the support of many major civic and religious groups. In the spring of 2005 a group of religious leaders called for nationwide action with the announcement: "Christians to Fast, Pray During Lent for a Just Resolution of the Taco Bell Boycott."

As outside publicity mounted, the Yum! Brands also faced pressure from within. According to OXFAM, an unprecedented thirty-nine percent of the shareholders of Yum! Brands supported a resolution calling for sustainable wages for farmworkers who pick tomatoes for Taco Bell suppliers.

The Agreement and the Future

On March 8, 2005, representatives of Taco Bell and its parent company Yum! Brands held a joint press conference with representatives of the Coalition at the corporate headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Yum! Brands Vice President Jonathan Blum announced that Yum! had signed an historic agreement to "work with the CIW to improve working and pay conditions for farmworkers in the Florida tomato fields." The CIW got its one penny more — Taco Bell estimates it will pay the Florida tomato growers an extra $100,000 a year, a cost that company officials said would not be passed on to customers.

According to CIW, the agreement sets some important precedents:

  • The first-ever direct, ongoing payment by a fast-food industry leader to farmworkers in its supply chain to address sub-standard farm labor wages (nearly doubling the percentage of the final retail price that goes to the workers who pick the produce);

  • The first-ever enforceable Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers in the fast-food industry (which includes the CIW, a worker-based organization, as part of the investigative body for monitoring worker complaints);

  • Market incentives for agricultural suppliers willing to respect their workers' human rights, even when those rights are not guaranteed by law;

  • 100% transparency for Taco Bell's tomato purchases in Florida (the agreement commits Taco Bell to buy only from Florida growers who agree to the pass-through and to document and monitor the pass-through, providing complete records of Taco Bell's Florida tomato purchases and growers' wage records to the CIW).
The CIW ended its boycott of Taco Bell upon the signing of the agreement, and the group has sent has sent letters to executives at McDonald's, Subway and Burger King asking them to follow Taco Bell's lead. Read the complete agreement and analysis.


Coalition of Immokalee Workers
The CIW's Web site has a wealth of information about its activities and the life and struggles of farm workers. In addition to documenting the "Boot the Bell" movement, the site details the CIW's Anti-Slavery Campaign. The group sponsors investigation and education and has brought several groups to the courts for holding people in involuntary servitude. For example, in 2002, three crew leaders from Lake Placid, FL, were convicted of forcing 700 workers into slave labor in Florida's citrus groves. They were sentenced in May, 2004, to a total of 31 years and nine months in federal prison, and were ordered to forfeit $3 million in proceeds from their immigrant smuggling operation.

Yum! Brands: Taco Bell
Taco Bell serves more than 35 million consumers each week in more than 6,500 restaurants in the U.S. In 2003, Taco Bell generated sales of $1.6 billion in company restaurants and $3.8 billion in franchise restaurants. And, Yum! Brands is the world's largest restaurant company in terms of system restaurants with more than 33,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries and territories.

Student/Farmworker Alliance
The SFA is a network of students and young community activists working with farmworkers for fair wages and an end to sweatshop conditions.

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