BY JESSICA NEWMAN
Early last month, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and other supporters of the fair food movement (more than 1,000 people in all) rallied outside of a Publix in downtown Tampa. Why? To tell Publix to “do the right thing.”
The CIW represents farm workers who pick 45 percent of the tomatoes eaten in the U.S. year round, many of whom temporarily live in Immokalee, Fla., for the growing season six or seven months of the year. They survive on less than $10,000 a year and have been the victims of modern-day slavery cases as recently as 2010.
The CIW and its allies merely want the mega-grocer to sign on to pay a penny more per pound for its tomatoes picked by the farm workers to go toward increased wages, an idea the store publicly supports.
But after more than a year of actions, campaign-building and attempted negotiations, Publix still refuses to officially sign on to the program.
“Simply stated, Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be in order to provide the goods to our customers,” said Dwaine Stevens, spokesperson for Publix, by email. “However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of the employer.”
This is the typical response of Publix throughout the duration of the CIW’s campaign. “They’re not our employees, so why should we pay them? Put it in the price.”
But there’s just one slight problem with this mentality.
Publix would not pay the farm workers directly; in fact, the increase would be incorporated into the price of tomatoes, just like Publix wants.
The repackers (middlemen between the growers and the retailers) would charge the extra penny to Publix and then allocate those funds back to the grower, who then passes them onto the farm worker. Publix pays in the price of tomatoes, not wages. This is the way the CIW has instituted the program in the past with corporations like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Aramark and Whole Foods (to name a few).
So why is Publix making this bogus argument? Probably because executives have never once sat down to talk or negotiate with the CIW. All dialogue has been confined to back-and-forth in the media.
Instead of getting their story straight, Publix and its representatives continue to mix the message, arguing “this is a dispute between the growers and the workers.” Essentially, they’re saying it’s not their problem, and the farm workers need to negotiate with their employers.
Well, they’ve tried that, and it’s a slow struggle. It’s more effective, the Coalition has found, to hold the large corporations buying the produce responsible for the influence they hold as the most powerful part of the supply chain.
The CIW is not targeting Publix because they think the store has a bad track record of employee treatment, even though the grocer seems to think this.
The CIW is pressuring Publix because the retailer has a huge amount of negotiating power in this campaign. All they have to do is officially sign on to the penny-per-pound increase and a code of conduct in the fields, and they could play a significant role in changing Florida’s agricultural system.
While they haven’t won yet, it’s safe to bet that the CIW is going to keep on fighting, and they won’t back down until Publix comes to the table.
To learn more and find out how you can get involved, visit the CIW’s website at www.ciw-online.org.