Florida Farmworkers Chop Up Burger King

The dusty calles (streets) and campos (fields) in Immokalee, Florida are abuzz with the news of a fresh victory over a fast food giant: Miami-headquartered Burger King.  Those farmworkers/campesinos who remain in Immokalee — the tomato season there ended in April — will probably get their news through the low-powered radio station, Radio Conciencia, a project of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  There is every reason to believe that through informal networks, migrant tomato pickers, now following tomatoes up the east coast, will hear of their victory.

The Burger King surrender is the third for the farmworkers’ organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in a protracted campaign to force the fast food industry to be accountable for the production of their staples.  The agreement between the CIW and Burger King, the nation’s second largest hamburger chain, was signed on Capitol Hill on May 23, 2008.  Modeled after those the CIW struck with YUM! Brands (parent company of Taco Bell) and McDonald’s, the agreement provides an additional penny per pound to workers who harvest its tomatoes (as well as ½ cent per pound to growers to defray administrative costs), a zero tolerance code of conduct which terminates contracts with growers who break the law, and a joint process to monitor compliance. 

The International Food Crisis in Florida

Recently, the US media has rightly focused on the growing international food crisis.  Daily we are confronted in newspapers and on TV with pictures of women, children, and men dying from starvation.  Food riots in Haiti, the Philipines, Africa, and South Asia point to the dire consequences of even a few pennies increase in the price of staples.  The barest subsistence living is now beyond the reach of millions worldwide. 

The food price increase is attributed to a number of factors: the rapid increase of meat consumption by the world’s rich (including the new layer of capitalists in China), global warming, the ascendancy of agri-business in the aftermath of international trade agreements like NAFTA and WTO, the imposition of neo-liberal “adjustments” demanded by the IMF, the increase in the price of oil which affects not only fuel-driven machinery but the production of fertilizers and the storage of harvested crops, and the turn toward biofuels.

Farmworkers in Florida are part of this chain of misery.  Farmworkers in the US live in poverty.  Poverty and hunger go hand in hand.  Surveys place the farmworker income somewhere between $7,400 and $12,0001 a year.  The fast food agreements would increase pay for Immokalee tomato pickers by 75%, bringing them closer to the $18,500 living wage figure for that town.

The story doesn’t end there, however.  Farmworkers in Immokalee are part of the large migration of family and small farmers (campesino/as) who have been displaced from their home in Mexico and Guatemala. Mercilessly undercut by international agri-business, now that NAFTA and similar pacts have opened up borders, they are no longer able to feed their families and sell the rest of their crop.  As a last resort, they have fled north to eke out a living.  Florida’s fields are one of the places they land.2

A Tasty Mix of Strategies

The CIW has long been known for its creative mix of strategies and alliances.  Founded in 1993, the CIW at first limited their organizing activity to the fields of Immokalee, including several strikes.  In 1998, they made front page news with a month-long hunger strike.  Even though wages were increased through these actions, the CIW membership knew that further gains could not be made if the focus remained solely on growers, whose profit margins had been squeezed by food giants who purchased their products.  CIW wisely reasoned this meant tackling farmworker wages and working conditions at the end of the corporate chain, not the beginning.

In 2000, against all odds, the CIW initiated a boycott of Taco Bell.  After more than 4 years of struggle — including tours (giras) criss-crossing the US, large-scale marches, support from actors and rock stars, hunger strikes, job actions, shareholder pressure led by the faith-based community, and a vibrant student movement which removed Taco Bells from college campuses throughout the US — the wildly anti-union Taco Bell cracked.  (For more details of this campaign, see “Immokalee Workers Take Down Taco Bell, Monthly Review, October 2005.)

Within weeks, the CIW took aim on McDonald’s, the leader of the fast-food burger industry with 43% of market share.  It took only two years for McDonald’s to fold.  Once again the CIW used a vibrant mix of strategies, relying heavily on media and student activism.  With networks already in place, marches, cross-country tours, and campus actions were easier to organize and new forces were drawn into action.  By allowing allies the freedom to create their own tactics within a framework set by farmworkers themselves, the McDonald’s campaign reached across generations, union and non(or anti)-union forces, religions, and classes. 

The McDonald’s campaign had two new features: One was support from former President Jimmy Carter (and several other politicians) as well as support from John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO.  Sweeney wrote an open letter in support of the farmworkers campaign, made public letters to McDonald’s Board of Directors, toured Immokalee with the CIW in April 2006, and spoke publicly on their behalf.  Within two months, the AFL-CIO had generated nearly 125,000 letters to McDonald’s demanding better pay and working conditions.  A second wave of support came from 30 labor and economics scholars who quickly debunked McDonald’s April 2006 survey claiming workers made nearly $18.00 an hour.

McDonald’s signed an agreement with CIW in April 2007.

Burger King: An Unsavory Meal of Dirty Tricks

Once again, the CIW didn’t waste time taking on another fast food giant.  The Burger King campaign had many of the winning features of the Taco Bell and McDonald’s campaigns — marches, tours of farmworkers, student activities, media blasts (check out YouTube!), shareholder actions, concerts/cultural events, and conferences.  There were also some new developments all of which have significantly raised the profile of struggle in the fields.

  • CIW consolidated its network of supporters and allies and helped form in late 2007 the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF) which is anchored by the Presbyterian Church (USA), Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, Student/Farmworker Alliance, and Interfaith Action.  The group expanded rapidly to nearly 100 organizational endorsements, including labor groups (AFL-CIO, SEIU, Jobs with Justice, Central Labor Councils), faith-based organizations (the Episcopal Church USA, Tikkun, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Pax Christi), groups in the sustainable food and agricultural sector (National Family Farm Coalition, Food First, Just Coffee), human rights groups (Amnesty International, Witness for Peace, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights), community organizations (Miami Workers Center, and many, many Latino-centered groups all over the US), left/progressive political organizations (Rukus Society, Socialist Party, Green Party), and even anti-war groups (Code Pink, Broward Anti-war Coalition).
  • Slavery in the fields has been an ongoing problem in southwest Florida.  Since 1997 the CIW, with its unique grassroots approach to ending slavery, has been part of seven federal lawsuits involving about 1,000 workers.  This year, with the help of its broad base of allies, including the AFF, the CIW began a massive petition drive “to end modern day slavery and sweatshops in the fields.”  On April 28, 2008 more than 200 workers and allies delivered the petitions, signed by more than 85,000, to Burger King headquarters.
  • The active involvement of Senator Bernie Saunders (IN, VT) has made a real difference.  In mid January 2008, Bernie Saunders toured Immokalee.  Like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Saunders was shocked at the “third world” conditions farmworkers live and work in.  Sen. Saunders then took action of his own.  On April 15, 2008, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee convened the first ever hearing specifically called to look into labor conditions in Florida’s fields.  SenatorDick Durbin, (D, IL) was particularly effective in discrediting claims by Florida’s Tomato Growers Exchange and other industry leaders that farmworkers make $12.50 an hour.  These congressional hearings were extremely important in breaking the back of Burger King and their allies.  Burger King settled just 37 days later.

CIW wasn’t the only one to break new ground.  In the past, corporate fast food giants have taken a similar approach: At first they ignore the CIW challenge; then stonewall; issue half-baked statements or studies that CIW claims are false.  But neither Taco Bell nor McDonald’s actively tried to undermine the CIW and its allies’ campaigns.  In this regard, Burger King has set a new standard.  Headquartered in Miami, Burger King is a major player in Florida agriculture and politics.  Like other growers, Burger King is part of the long-standing lobbying group, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE).  When YUM! and McDonald’s signed the agreements giving a penny more a pound, growers in Immokalee complied.  For two years, workers picking for YUM and McDonald’s got the wage increase.  FTGE, while unhappy, did nothing to prevent the new wage increase.

But once Burger King became a target, FTGE assumed a very aggressive posture.  At first they claimed the pacts to be “un-American,” then illegal, and threatened to file a RICO suit against the CIW.  Finally in November 2007 they decided to levy $100,000 fines on any grower who participated in the penny per pound wage increase.  This stopped all growers from complying with the agreements.

But Burger King didn’t stop there.

  • In January 2008, Steven Grover, the fast food chain’s vice president of food safety, quality assurance, and regulatory compliance, used his young daughter’s online alias to make derogatory comments about the CIW.  When the AP story broke, Burger King claimed that the comments were not sanctioned by the company and pledged to investigate further.
  • Also in January, AP reported that it received an e-mail that contained a leaked a memo from Grover warning that it might stop buying Florida tomatoes.  The AP traced the e-mail’s Internet protocol address to Burger King corporate headquarters in Miami.  The e-mail’s address — stopcorporategreed@live.com — was the same one used by someone claiming to be a student at the University of Virginia asking to be included in the Student/Farmworker Alliance organizational meetings and conference calls.  When SFA member Marc Rodrigues wrote back asking for a physical address to which he could send a packet, stopcorporategreed never responded.
  • In March, Rodrigues fielded an almost identical request — this time from Cara Schaffer, claiming to be a student at Broward Community College.  Schaffer said she wanted to organize campus events to support the group and she asked to listen in on alliance conference calls, which she did twice.  Schaffer is not a student.  She actually owns Diplomatic Tactical Services (DTS), a Hollywood, Florida-based security and investigative firm that advertises its ability to place operatives in the ranks of target groups.  DTS, it turns out, was hired by Burger King. 

These dirty tricks might have remained a flash in the pan, if Eric Schlosser,3 a long-time ally of the farmworkers, had not written a guest editorial for the New York Times (May 5, 2008) describing Burger King’s tactics. 

The first hint that Burger King would be dethroned was an out-of-the-blue call from the FTGE to the Fort Myers News Press, on May 4th that fines would no longer be levied on growers who participate in the CIW agreements.  Then, on Friday, May 5th, Burger King signed the agreement.

The CIW has outmaneuvered one of the world’s largest corporations, proving once again that the working class and it allies can be strategic, thoughtful, and absolutely capable.

Sea Change in the Fields?

With Burger King on board, nearly 10% of all tomatoes grown in Immokalee, the center of east coast tomato production, will be under agreement.  Ten percent may not seem like much.  But with just 6-8 major growers in Immokalee, coupled with the terms of the agreements which obligate the three major fast food purchasers to buy tomatoes only from growers who sign on, conditions of tomato production could shift dramatically.

Finally, there is already evidence that the CIW isn’t going to take their foot off the gas pedal.  At the signing with Burger King, co-founder of CIW, Lucas Benitez said:

There are companies — like Chipotle in the restaurant world and Whole Foods in the grocery industry — that already make claims to social responsibility yet, when it comes to tomatoes, fall far short of their lofty claims.  It is time, now, that those companies live out the true meaning of their marketers’ words.  And there are companies — like Subway and WalMart — that, by the sheer volume of their purchases, profit like few others from the pernicious poverty of workers in Florida’s fields.  They, too, must step up now.

¡Stay tuned, la lucha continúa!


1  The National Agricultural Workers Survey (2005) places the farmworkers earning between $10-12,000.  However, 21% of those surveyed by NAWS were managers and supervisors, thus skewing upwards their final figures.

2  For many the migration from home begins with a job in the maquiladoras.  Maquilas are notorious for their low wages and poor working conditions.  Typically, workers were unable to meet their own basic needs, much less support family members back home.  Now in decline as manufacturing has moved on to even lower wage countries, maquila employment options are even more limited.

3  Schlosser is the author of the groundbreaking Fast Food Nation.

Elly Leary is a retired UAW member, local union officer, and negotiator living in Florida.  For the last five years she has volunteered at the CIW, helping coordinate CIW initiatives with unions.  Leary is one of the founders of the Center for Labor Renewal and remains active in international and nation labor education.  She urges everyone to check out the CIW website for information, hip videos, and suggests for action: <www.ciw-online.org>.

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