Take note, saucy little Taco Bell Chihuahua. Farmworkers in Florida who pick tomatoes that wind up on the fast-food giant's menu are fed up with backbreaking work at slave-labor wages. They're uniting with students in a new Southern labor movement that just might rival the anti-sweatshop protests that rocked sportswear manufacturers in the 1990s.
Immokalee, FL -- Yo Quiero Taco Bell? If a small union of Florida farm workers has its way, the nasal voice of the famous Chihuahua will be saying "No quiero Taco Bell" on college campuses nationwide.
For almost a decade, the campus anti-sweatshop movement has exposed the poor working conditions abroad that produce the big-label sportswear favored by American youth. Now tomato pickers in the Everglades are urging young people to look closer to home.
Students are "some of the largest consumers of fast food tacos and chalupas," says Lucas Benitez COMMA a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Conditions for some farmworkers here "are really no different from the conditions of Nike factory workers in Asia. The only difference is that we are here."
The offending taco ingredients are the tomatoes. Florida workers get 40-45 cents for filling a 32-pound bucket, working for a network of growers whose main customer is the fast-food giant. To make $50 in one day, a worker must pick two tons of tomatoes -- 120 buckets, or one every four minutes.
Pickers would like to see Taco Bell pay growers an additional penny a pound. If that were passed on to workers, it would double their wages. Even if Taco Bell passes labor costs onto the finished product, at the cash register, consumers would see little difference.
Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Tricon Corp., has $5.2 billion in sales annually, a quarter of its parent corporation's gross receipts. "Their tremendous revenues are based on cheap ingredients, including cheap tomatoes picked at sub-poverty wages," says Benitez. "We are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our poverty."
"When you look at the difference in power between us and them, you may think we're crazy," says Romeo Ramirez, a CIW activist. "But we have the power of the truth."
Many of the students in Florida have been inspired by the farmworkers' struggle. Campus activists are ready "to dedicate resources and creativity toward helping Taco Bell realize its responsibility for improving the wages of our state's tomato pickers," says Brian Payne, of Florida's student-farmworker alliance.
Immokalee, in the middle of the Everglades, feels more like a labor reserve than a southwest Florida town. It's an unincorporated area where the farmworker population nearly doubles to 30,000 during the harvest season.
"Every day here, thousands of people wake up at 4 a.m. to beg for a day's work in the central parking lot in town," Benitez says. "And every Friday, they get checks from three or four different companies. No company has a fixed work force. There are only the changing faces of Immokalee workers picking and planting every day."
Three decades ago, when Edward R. Murrow produced "Harvest of Shame," the celebrated expose of semi-slave conditions among Florida farm workers, the state's tomato pickers were African-Americans and Black immigrants from the Caribbean. While Haitians still make up a significant percentage of that work force today, most Immokalee residents today are Mexican and Guatemalan.
But the plight of the nation's farmworkers has changed little since Murrow's television documentary. According to a U.S. Department of Labor report to Congress last year, farmworkers everywhere in the United States are at the bottom of the economic heap. And Florida pickers are among the poorest.
In the past five years the CIW has provided the Florida Department of Justice documentation of three slavery operations. One southwest Florida employer cited held over 400 people in bondage, forcing them to work 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, for as little as $20 a day. Armed guards stood watch in the fields and work camps where pickers lived.
In 1997, that employer was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. Another labor contractor is currently serving three years for holding 30 workers in two trailers in a swamp near Immokalee. The CIW's anti-slavery program is currently investigating a third case.
The American South is a region of few unions and low wages, but grassroots organizing projects are spreading rapidly. In the eyes of many traditional unions, the new Southern workers -- immigrant agricultural labors, who often don't speak English -- are difficult or impossible to organize. But for Benitez and the CIW, the immigrant status of the Immokalee work force is an advantage to organizers, who use popular education techniques that have become part of the culture of social justice movements in Central America and the Caribbean. Many workers can't read, but movies, popular theater, cartoons and drawings help them recognize their situation and participate in changing it.
This spring the CIW took two busloads of its members on a "Taco Bell Truth Tour," which culminated in a demonstration of 2,000 workers and supporters outside the company's blue, glass office tower in Irvine, in California's Orange County. Taco Bell maintains it is not responsible for the work conditions of tomato pickers since it doesn't employ them directly. Nevertheless, company representatives met with Benitez and other CIW activists.
In a statement after the meeting, Laurie Gannon, Taco Bell spokesperson, said that "we allowed them to share their views and they allowed us to clarify some of their statements. It's still too early to tell what will happen because we're still talking about this."