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Settlement by Immokelee Farm Workers with
March 8, 2005
Comments by Coalition of Immokalee Workers Co-Director Lucas Benitez at
Press Conference, Announcing Settlement of the CIW's Taco Bell Boycott
Thank you, Jonathan. My name is
Lucas Benitez, and I am a Co-Director of the Coalition of
Immokalee Workers. I'd like to begin by thanking everyone for coming,
and to thank Jonathan Blum and everyone else here at Yum and Taco Bell
whose hard work has helped make today possible.
Today, we have some good news to share: Today, Taco Bell has agreed to
work with us to address the wages and working conditions of farmworkers
in the Florida tomato industry. And so, today, we are ending our
boycott of Taco Bell.
And today's message is simple: Taco Bell and the CIW -- one a fast-food
giant and the other a farmworker organization -- are indeed part of the
same industry. The food industry in this country is rooted in
communities like mine, Immokalee, where every season thousands of
farmworkers arrive to pick the tomatoes that end up, just a few days
later, on tables across the country. Many of those tables are found in
Taco Bell restaurants, from Florida to California. It is that
connection, from the field to the table, that makes us members of the
same industry, and it is that connection that is, finally, recognized
in this agreement today.
Not much more can be said about the conditions in Florida's tomato
fields that hasn't been said already.
Wages are extremely low, working conditions can be brutal -- Florida's
fields have seen some of the most shameful extremes of exploitation
that this country has known, both decades ago and still today. My
community is one of the poorest communities in the country, and our
have helped make Florida's tomatoes some of the least expensive,
highest quality tomatoes on the market today.
But with this agreement, we are laying the groundwork for real change,
both in the concrete conditions of farmworkers' everyday lives and in
the market itself, where this agreement is establishing important new
standards of social responsibility. With the penny more per pound, Taco
Bell has recognized that it can - and should - help improve the wages
of the men and women who pick their tomatoes. And with the strict new
additions to its Code of Conduct, Yum and Taco Bell are making the
working conditions in the fields where we labor their business.
But the real significance of this agreement lies in the promise it
holds for much greater change in the future. As Jonathan himself has so
eloquently put it, human rights are universal, and if we as farmworkers
are to one day indeed enjoy equal rights, the same rights all other
workers in this country are guaranteed, this agreement must only be a
beginning. To make those rights truly
universal, other leaders of the fast-food industry and the
supermarket industry must join us on this path toward social
responsibility. With a broad coalition of industry leaders committed to
these principles, we can finally dream of a day when Florida's
farmworkers will enjoy the kind of wages and working conditions we
deserve. And when that day comes, the restaurants and markets of this
country will truly be able to stand behind their food, from the fields
to America's tables.
So, today, we call on those food industry leaders to rise to this
challenge and to follow Taco Bell's leadership. And today we call on
our supporters across the country to end their boycott of Taco Bell.
Coalition of Immokalee Workers & Taco Bell
Southwest Florida is the state's
most important center for agricultural production, and Immokalee is the
state's largest farmworker community. As such, the majority of the
Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), more than 2,500 members, work for
large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests,
traveling along the entire East Coast following the harvest in season.
Many local residents, and thus many of CIW members, move out of
agriculture and into other low wage industries that are important in
our area, including the construction, nursery, and tourist industries.
The community is split, roughly, along the following ethnic/national
origin lines: Mexican 50%, Guatemalan 30%, Haitian 10% and other
nationalities (mostly African-American) 10%.
CIW began organizing in 1993 as a small group of workers who met weekly
in a room borrowed from a local church to discuss how to better our
community and our lives. In a relatively short time we have managed to
bring about significant, concrete change.
Combining community-wide work stoppages with intense public pressure --
including three general strikes, an unprecedented month-long hunger
strike by six of our members in 1998, and an historic 230-mile march
from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000 -- CIW's early organizing ended over
twenty years of declining wages in the tomato industry.
By 1998, CIW had won industry-wide raises of 13-25% (translating into
several million dollars annually for the community in increased wages)
and a new-found political and social respect from the outside world.
Those raises brought the tomato picking piece-rate back to pre-1980
levels (the piece-rate had fallen below
those levels over the
course of the intervening two decades), but wages remained below
poverty level and continuing improvement was slow in coming.
In 2001, CIW turned a new page in its organizing, launching the
first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company -- the
national boycott of Taco Bell -- calling on the fast-food giant to take
responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce
is grown and picked. Taco Bell is owned by Yum Brands, the world's
largest restaurant company (bigger than McDonald's), which pools the
buying power of its five major chain brands (Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell,
Long John Silver, and A&W Restaurants) to demand the lowest
possible prices from their suppliers, exerting a powerful downward
pressure on wages and working conditions in their suppliers' operations.
In the last few years, the
Bishop of Venice, Florida, the Florida Catholic Conference, the
Department of Social Development and World Peace of the USCCB and other
ecclesial communities and religious organizations have joined their
names in support. Below are a number of of timely articles and letters
related to this struggle.
Catholic Social Teachings
Articles of Interest