Published on Friday, March 18, 2005 by Campus Progress
They Say Tomato, Students Say Justice
Under pressure from a spirited coalition of farmworkers and student activists, fast food giant Taco Bell finally agrees to improve their sweatshops in the field.
by Elana Berkowitz
|If you must, you can now return to eating that Fiesta Taco Salad. After a three-year long boycott against Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands Inc., farmworkers scored a historic victory last week. Yum, which also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Long John Silver’s, has agreed to increase wages for their tomato pickers by an extra penny per pound picked while committing to an overall improvement of working conditions. And it couldn’t have happened without the hard work of thousands of students across the country.
If all this fighting over one measly cent seems like small potatoes, remember this – farm workers are among the most impoverished workers in the country. They have been confronting a piss poor piece rate that has remained stagnant for almost two decades, due, in part, to the fact that farm workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which would entitle them to standard rights like organizing or overtime pay.
In Florida, which was the epicenter of the boycott, farm workers picking tomatoes are paid just 1/3 of what they earned 25 years ago when adjusted for inflation. That means they make a meager 40 to 45 cents for a 32 pound bucket of tomatoes – they would need to pick and haul in two tons of tomatoes in one day to earn just shy of the minimum wage. We’ll do the math for you here – their average salary amounts to $7,500 a year, well below the poverty line. In addition to the poverty-level wages, there have been many reports of systematic mistreatment in the fields, including, at the extreme, slavery cases in the Florida agricultural system with over 1,000 workers being held captive.
The movement against these “sweatshops in the fields” was led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a primarily Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian migrant workers organization based out of Immokalee in southern Florida. After years of organizing directly against the growers and ranchers through general strikes, hunger strikes, and a 230 mile protest march through Florida, they had little success because local growers aren’t as concerned as big corporations about their public image, so they aren’t as susceptible to embarrassing protests.
In 2001, CIW switched their tactics and launched the Taco Bell boycott because Taco Bell purchased 10 million pounds of Florida tomatoes in 2004, making it one of the largest growers in the region – which grows more than half of all American tomatoes. This new tactic provided a perfect engagement point for students, who ended up being critical to the campaign.
Sean Sellers, a 23-year-old recent University of Texas at Austin graduate and the national co-coordinator of the Student Farmworker Alliance, ran the campus aspects of the CIW boycott campaign including the highly successful “Boot the Bell” campaign, in which 22 colleges and high schools either managed to remove a Taco Bell franchise from their campus or prevent one from being built. The University of Chicago’s removal of their franchise was the first major victory for Boot the Bell, and other schools like UCLA, Notre Dame, Cal State San Bernardino and UT Austin followed suit. This aspect of the campaign created both economic pressure and some major bad press for Taco Bell.
Sean notes that beyond worker solidarity, the focus on a giant like Taco Bell had other resonance for students, saying “this felt like our issue in a lot of ways.” More than ever before, universities have food courts populated by some of the biggest fast food chains. And the young folk are their favorite target audience for marketing. “Their marketing makes it always sound like young people are bored with traditional rules.” Sean explains, “They seem to think that we are just shallow consumers who only care about instant gratification and endless streams of new products.” Sean goes onto cite a marketing document released by Taco Bell in which the company announced that their target audience of 18-24 year-old represents “the new hedonism generation.” Sean and his fellow young activists were bothered by their transparent, seemingly counter-cultural marketing campaign that beseeched young folk to “think outside the bun” or “spice up the night” all while sponsoring such college-age crowd pleasers like the X-Games. “They think that we will just buy into the alternative rhetoric and that we won’t ask what kind of working conditions go into making a chalupa,” Sean continues, “But we will.”
Chalupa hating students turned out in tremendous numbers – the Student Farmworker Alliance network is comprised of youth at over 300 universities, 50 high schools, and 11 national student organizations. Students also made up a pivotal part of the Taco Bell Truth Tour, a nationwide effort that brought together farmworkers, students and other supporters as they crisscrossed the country to drum up support for the boycott. Throughout 2004 and 2005, the campaign picked up steam as the CIW built up a diverse range of allies including the AFL-CIO, Jimmy Carter, celebrities like Jeff Bridges and Martin Sheen, and Christian groups, some of whom called for a fast and prayer day each Friday of Lent for a just resolution to the Taco Bell boycott.
“So many groups were involved in this campaign, but I can’t overstate the central role of young people in this campaign,” Sean proudly proclaims, “they were really the driving force.” Sad to say, but ultimately thousands of adorable college students protesting on bucolic campuses against Taco Bell create a more telegenic media angle than migrant workers protesting in their own rural communities. And Taco Bell knew it. “They lost this campaign on the campuses. No matter how many PR people they sent out to fix things or how many ads they took in college papers, they couldn’t hide from the truth,” Sean said. Taco Bell executives sunk major time and money into fighting this battle on campuses – they took out full-page ads in campus papers on the very day that the “truth van” was coming to town. Top executives called UCLA begging them to keep their chain open, and signed a multimillion dollar deal with Boise State University to rename their sports and events complex the “Taco Bell” arena.
(It is worth noting that while top-level Yum Brand executives were busy throwing marketing dollars at the problem and ignoring their moral imperative towards their workers, they were one of the first companies to pull advertising from ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” at the behest of a powerful Christian lobby who thought that the real morality issue lay in this saucy and sometimes frankly sexual soap opera.)
Coming off of one of the biggest labor victories in years, one would think Sean might take some time off, or at least take a long nap. But he is already driving back across the Southeast from Yum brand headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky to Immokalee to get a jump start on the next campaign. The Taco Bell victory, he hopes, is a sign to industry that the tide is turning – and that these boycott supporters will keep pushing to make fast food into fair food. “There’s not time for resting,” Sean explains as his car races the hundreds of miles towards Florida, “Taco Bell is just one part of the picture, this was the first step. The end game is to change the way agriculture is done in this country.”
Elana Berkowitz is editor of CampusProgress.org