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 (Updated: April 6, 2005)


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    Settlement by Immokelee Farm Workers with Taco Bell
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 sacrifices
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.

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