As the Coalition of Immokalee Workers prepares to deliver more than 60,000 petitions to Burger King headquarters in Miami today, the daughter of Burger King's vice-president Stephen Grover confirmed her father is responsible for online postings vilifying the coalition.
The Immokalee-based group is asking Burger King to improve tomato harvesters' working conditions and pay a penny more a pound for tomatoes, which could add about $20 to a daily wage of $50, workers say.
McDonald's and Yum! Brands, the world's biggest fast-food chain and restaurant company, respectively, have agreed to the raise. Yum! signed on in 2005; McDonald's in 2007. So far, Burger King has refused, while publicly saying it wants to work with the coalition to improve labor conditions.
Yet often during the past year, when articles or videos about the coalition were posted on YouTube and various Internet news sites, someone using the online names activist2008 or surfxaholic36 would attach comments coalition member Greg Asbed has called "libelous."
This one, from surfxaholic36, is representative: "The CIW is an attack organization lining the leaders pockets ... They make up issues and collect money from dupes that believe their story. To (sic) bad the people protesting don't have a clue regarding the facts. A bunch of fools!"
A father's posts
Although Shannon Grover also uses the name surfxaholic36 - mostly on social networking sites - she said the anti-coalition posts are her father's alone.
"I don't really know much about the coalition and Burger
King stuff," she said, reached by phone at the family's Miramar home Friday. "That was my dad. My dad used to go online with that name and write about them."
Asked if she'd ever written about the coalition online, she was adamant: "No, that was my Dad. That was him."
Steven Grover did not return calls to his home or office, nor did Burger King spokesman Keva Silversmith respond to calls and a request to speak to Burger King CEO John Chidsey.
"This is truly disturbing," said coalition member Gerardo Reyes. "It's one thing to imagine that there's some kind of anonymous Internet stalker out there obsessively tracking every story about the CIW, posting these vicious lies about us and calling us things like 'the lowest form of life' and 'blood suckers,'" Reyes said. "I mean, we're a farmworker community fighting slavery and trying to get a fair wage for the work we do."
The bigger question, Reyes said, is this: "When you realize the person posting those things is actually Burger King's vice president in charge of the ethical operation of the company's supply chain, it really makes you wonder just how high up does this whole thing go? Does Burger King, as a company, approve of this sort of behavior? If not, we'd expect to see some changes now that this has come to light."
'The low-road approach'
Last month, activist2008 sent an e-mail to The News-Press almost identical to many of the online postings signed "Shawn Glass." The e-mail's Internet address showed it came from Burger King's corporate headquarters in Miami. No one named Shawn Glass works there, according to the employee phone directory.
At the time, Silversmith denied the e-mail was official BK communication, although he didn't deny it came from the company.
"This is a non-corporate sanctioned opinion," he told The News-Press. "The strident tone does not reflect Burger King, who wants to cooperate and bring real change to Immokalee."
Marc Rodrigues of the Student Farmworker Alliance, which works closely with the coalition, says he's not surprised by the latest revelation but frustrated an executive would "stoop to this level and choose the low-road approach instead of trying to work for real change."
It was Rodrigues who discovered earlier this year the alliance had been infiltrated by Cara Schaffer, who said she was a student at Broward Community College interested in organizing campus events in support of farmworkers.
In reality, Schaffer owns Diplomatic Tactical Services, a Hollywood, Fla.-based security and investigative firm that advertises its ability to place operatives in the ranks of target groups.
Her application for a private investigator's license was denied last year because she failed to prove she had experience or training. Florida's Division of Licensing told her, "Your employment must be terminated immediately, or your employer may reassign you to duties that do not require licensure or registration."
That didn't stop her from listening in on two alliance conference calls. Her company's Web site is no longer online.
Reluctance to cooperate
The coalition, one of the nation's most respected anti-slavery groups, also is asking Burger King to help "eliminate slavery and human rights abuses from Florida's fields."
At Senate hearings on farm conditions held by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., earlier this month, Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling "Fast Food Nation," praised Yum! and McDonald's for working with the coalition and urged Burger King to do the same. "The admirable behavior of these two industry giants makes the behavior or Burger King ... seem completely unjustifiable."
Schlosser has argued it would take Burger King no more than $300,000 a year to pay the increase.
On its corporate Web site, Burger King, which has more than 11,300 restaurants in the United States and in 69 countries and U.S. territories, reports revenues of $2.2 billion last year, up 9 percent from 2006. CEO Chidsey made $4.1 million last year, according to Forbes.com.
Given the company's profile and earnings, Grover's behavior is all the more interesting, said John Stauber, executive director of the nonprofit, non-partisan Center for Media and Democracy, based in Madison, Wis.
"I think this shows a deep arrogance that a person at such a high level in the corporation would be directly involved in that type of harassment," Stauber said. "This a huge black eye for the Burger King corporation. It's the type of situation that lands companies in public relations textbooks on how not to engage the press, the public and your critics."