Invasions of Privacy

Two weeks ago, I asked a Burger King spokeswoman whether the company had hired a private investigator firm to infiltrate the non-violent Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) or Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). She declined to comment. I asked whether the company was aware of any executives making "libelous" comments against CIW via online posts and e-mails. Again, no comment.

Now we know why.

The Fort Myers News-Press linked Vice President Steve Grover to the anti-CIW posts that he made through "his young daughter's online alias." And in an explosive op-ed in the New York Times last week, investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser revealed that, in fact, the company used Diplomatic Tactical Services -- a private security firm specializing in "covert surveillance" and "covert operations" -- to spy on the SFA and CEO John Chidsey knew the firm had been hired to do investigations. Burger King's Senior Analyst of Communications, Denise Wilson, told me that Chidsey "did not know about or authorize the use of Diplomatic Tactical Services to obtain information about the Student/Farmworker Alliance's plans." But when pressed on when he learned about it the company declined to comment. Further, when asked whether Burger King would continue to use Diplomatic Tactical Services or any other investigative firms to track either CIW or the SFA she said, "Burger King Corporation has the right and duty to assess security risks and to protect its employees and assets from potential harm."

That's a good-sized portion of doublespeak from the home of the Double Whopper.

As Schlosser pointed out, the fact is both the SFA and the CIW have a history of non-violence "inspired by the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." They are supported by the likes of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Pax Christi -- the Catholic peace movement. That probably explains why when asked whether Burger King could point to a single act of violence or vandalism committed by -- or advocated for by -- any member of the Student Farmworker Alliance, the company again declined to comment.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been a leader on this issue -- visiting tomato workers in Immokalee and also leading a Senate hearing on their working conditions -- spoke with me about these latest developments. "The idea that a vice president of a major corporation would be doing what this guy is doing is literally beyond belief," he said. "The idea that they would hire spies to infiltrate the coalition is beyond belief. This is despicable behavior. I think that a vice president or anyone else who engages in this kind of behavior should not hold onto his job.... This just tells us all that much more [about] why we need to resolve this issue and make sure that tomato workers have dignity on the job and are protected... I spoke to Mr. Chidsey several months ago -- before any of this developed -- and look forward to talking with him again about this."

Both Senators Edward Kennedy and Richard Durbin sent me statements after Schlosser's op-ed ran as well. "Companies like Yum Brands and McDonald's have demonstrated strong leadership by agreeing to pay tomato workers an extra penny a pound and adopt a strong labor code of conduct," Senator Kennedy wrote. "I urge Burger King, Wal-Mart, and other leading fast food chains and supermarkets to act as well to assure that tomato pickers have fair wages and reasonable working conditions."

Senator Durbin also wants this moment to be one that helps bring Burger King to the negotiating table. "I have serious concerns that Burger King has yet to come to the table to negotiate with CIW," he said. "Immokalee workers destroy their backs and knees picking tomatoes and lettuce for 10 to 12 hours per day. They live in filthy, substandard housing. They travel from one rural area to another, disconnected from home and family. We should not delay negotiations and stand idly by as the tomato pickers are forced to work under these terrible conditions day after day."

Over the past 10 days, I have tried without much success to get comments from Florida Senator Bill Nelson on these and related matters. The Senator did e-mail me this statement in response to Schlosser's op-ed piece: "Allegations that a company hired a security firm to spy on a private advocacy group should be fully investigated."

But there are other urgent matters with regard to the tomato workers struggle in Florida that Senator Nelson remains silent on. Questions posed to him include: does he have any comment on the action taken by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) to block the penny-per-pound pay-raise for workers that both McDonalds Corporation and Yum Brands, Inc. (owners of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and other chains) agreed to? Does he believe Burger King should step-up as its competitors did and implement a similar agreement which would cost about $250,000 annually (Chidsey himself reportedly took home $11.7 million in 2006)? In addition to the spying issue, does the Senator see the need for an investigation into whether a smear campaign against CIW using false statements was undertaken by Burger King, as opposed to this being the action of a sole employee as the corporation claims?

In response to these questions and more, Senator Nelson's office e-mailed this statement: "There are issues with farm workers all across the country. And Senator Nelson is committed to improving their plight. That's why he's cosponsor of the Senate Agriculture Jobs bill, which is aimed at improving working conditions, increasing wages and providing better housing for all farm workers. In cases of alleged illegal acts such as slavery, he believes these allegations should be aggressively investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

In contrast to some of his Democratic colleagues -- like Senator Sanders and Senators Kennedy, Durbin and Sherrod Brown -- Senator Nelson has remained reticent on many of the specific injustices happening in his own backyard. One has to ask why? With some help from the Center for Responsive Politics -- the premier research group tracking money in US politics -- it's no great leap to think that money plays a role here.

In 2006, the Crop Production and Basic Processing sector contributed nearly $135,000 to Senator Nelson or his PAC. Agribusiness gave him over $330,000. His third highest donor in 2006 is the PAC, employees or owners of the law firm Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson, at nearly $52,000 in contributions. On its website the firm lists agribusiness as a specialty, writing that it has overseen transactions totaling more than $10 billion in the last decade, and, "We also regularly deal with the full range of labor and employment issues that are encountered when dealing with field labor." Other contributors include the PAC, employees or owners of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (the lobbying group for growers in Florida and FTGE Executive Vice President Reggie Brown's old employer); Dimare -- one of the largest tomato growers in Florida and a major force on the FTGE; and plenty of citrus growers who rue the day tomato workers win this wage increase and there is greater pressure for similar reforms in the citrus industry.

Still, it's good that Senator Nelson supports the need to learn who authorized this invasion of privacy by Burger King into the lives of American citizens. And while Burger King seems to be setting up Grover as the fall guy in all of this, it seems far more likely that this scandal reaches to higher levels in the company.

As recently as October, Chidsey delivered a lecture at his alma mater, Davidson College, and made statements almost identical to the ones now linked to Grover. Chidsey said of dealing with CIW, "The union said the money has to go in the union coffers and 'we'll decide what's better for the workers.'" Two weeks prior to this statement the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) -- which had been closely involved in negotiations for the wage increase -- had written Burger King to request that it stop making these false statements to the press. The Carter Center and Yum Brands issued similar statements defending CIW. Chidsey also mocked the very notion of farmworker poverty (which has even been documented by the Bush Administration's Department of Labor), saying, "The facts on the tomatoes are very straightforward.... The average tomato picker in the state of Florida makes $12.56 an hour. If you're really good, you can make $20 bucks an hour.... They already make more than we pay our workers." All of this is patently false.

But here's where Burger King's credibility takes another huge hit. According to Wilson, Grover's comments "do not reflect the opinion of the company" and led to Burger King "conducting our investigation and [we] will take appropriate action once we have a full understanding of the facts." Yet Chidsey's comments are on the record and he's the man at the helm of the corporation. Does that mean the CEO's comments are not the opinion of the company he leads? And, if that's the case, doesn't Chidsey at the very least owe a public apology that sets the record straight about CIW and farmworker poverty? Further, why should investigations or disciplinary action be taken against Grover or any other Burger King employees but not the CEO? Perhaps the answer lies here: this month, Burger King reported third quarter profits that were up 21 percent compared to the same period last year. Net income for the quarter rose from $34 million to $41 million. Revenue rose 10 percent to $594 million from $539 million.

Senator Sanders clearly sees the scope of the issues arising from this controversy and the need for a just solution. "The end result that I want is to see tomato pickers being paid a living wage rate," he said. "The issue of corporate spying is a huge issue and it's something that's got to be dealt with too, no question about it. But right now I want to continue focusing on how we can improve the living conditions and working conditions and wages for the tomato workers... And I should think that this publicity surrounding their spying and the role of their vice president should be absolutely humiliating to a major corporation, and I would hope that before they dig a hole even deeper for themselves, that they begin to do the right thing, sit down, and not keep coming up with excuses."

On that front, Burger King did say something new that they will hopefully follow through on. For months the company has said it won't sit down to negotiate with CIW unless provided the agreements signed by Yum Brands and McDonald's. That was a non-starter because even if CIW wanted to hand over the agreements signed by Burger King's competitors it isn't permitted to do so. The fact is the principles of those agreements are well known. This week, Wilson gave me a different answer: "We are eager to meet as soon as possible with the CIW.... We hope that the CIW will facilitate this process by providing the details of [the signed agreements], but we are ready to begin discussions from any starting point." When pressed as to what the "eager" company will do to make the negotiations happen -- in essence, what are they waiting for -- the company declined further comment.

Let's hope that the pressure of public scrutiny forces Burger King to keep its word on this and sit down at the table. But there is still the other powerful issue looming over this conflict: companies should not spy on Americans -- ever -- and when they do, they should pay a price for it. The use of corporate spies has a dark history in our nation, and the proliferation of private security firms and sophisticated investigative technology makes this more prevalent - and more difficult to uncover -- than ever before.

Yet we also have examples in our history of Congress using its rightful power of investigation to crack down on these violations of civil liberties. In 1936, Senator Robert La Follette, Jr. led a three-year investigation, discovering some companies that had private armies stocked with machine guns and chemical munitions. In 1966, Senator Abraham Ribicoff's investigation found that General Motors hired operatives to spy on Ralph Nader after he questioned the safety of their automobiles. Recent victims of corporate invasions of privacy include Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, the New York Times, and now the Student/Farmworker Alliance.

What Burger King did is unacceptable corporate behavior. In addition to being morally reprehensible, it might be illegal and the company must be held accountable. At a bare minimum, Burger King CEO Chidsey owes a public apology to the Student/Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And Congress needs to take a long and tough look at the magnitude of this problem so it can better protect the American people from corporate espionage.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation. Greg Kaufmann is a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.

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