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Riding 200 miles for a penny

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image Wilson Perez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers holds up a sign near the Publix store in Sun City Center. Mitch Traphagen Photo

After 11 days on the road and 200 miles, they arrived at Publix headquarters in Lakeland.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

SUN CITY CENTER — The small group of bicyclists rode up Highway 301 to the Kings Crossing shopping center in Sun City Center without ceremony. They quietly dismounted, picked up banners and signs from a van that had been waiting for their arrival, and stood alongside the highway to make their mission known. Effectively, the small group of riders from both the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida rode 200 miles for a penny.

More specifically, they rode from Immokalee to the corporate headquarters of Publix in Lakeland, in the hopes of meeting with CEO Ed Crenshaw to convince him to join in their Campaign for Fair Food project — an effort to address substandard farm labor wages and to establish a code of conduct in labor practices. The CIW is asking fast food companies and grocery chains to agree to an additional penny per pound for tomatoes — an amount that would be passed along to the farm workers in the form of a bonus. According to the CIW, most farm workers are currently paid by the piece, not by the hour, and most earn less than $12,000 per year, with minimum wage laws not applicable.

For many workers, the CIW says the piece rate has not changed since 1980. Farm workers receive an average of 50 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes so the penny per pound accord would create a significant increase in wages. The CIW says that a typical worker today must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in an average 10-hour workday. The organization also claims that some farm workers are held against their will and are forced to work for little or no pay.

Several major food corporations, from Taco Bell to McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway, have committed to the effort. Whole Foods, a chain of more than 300 grocery stores, has also committed to it. Now the CIW and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida are targeting Publix, one of Florida’s largest companies, looking for their support and hoping to tap into the influence they have with growers as a major buyer.

According to Publix, they are more than happy to pay the additional penny per pound and they say they have no conflict with the CIW, but the farm workers are not part of the Publix workforce, and thus they will not pay employees from other companies directly for their labor.

“We are saying, ‘put it in the price!’”, said Shannon Patten, media and community relations manager for Publix. “Simply stated, we are 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. We suggest that they put the cost of the tomatoes in the price they charge the industry. We will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employers. Employers should pay wages, not those outside of the employment relationship.”

“We understand they are saying put it in the price,” said Margaret Gleeson of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida. “And that’s exactly how it works, but the Fair Food program doesn’t require retail companies to pay the farm workers directly, rather it is passed through the grower and paid to the workers by the grower. For two years now we’ve been writing letters and inviting Publix to come to the table and they have refused to do so.”

In many respects, Publix and the CIW are looking at the same thing from two very different perspectives. The CIW wants Publix to commit that penny per pound to the workers through their employers. Additionally, their purchasing power and influence would send a strong message through the entire industry by conditioning their purchases of tomatoes to those growers willing to commit to the Fair Food program. Publix, however, while willing to pay an additional penny per pound, does not want to step into a relationship in which they see themselves as a third party.

“We do not have a conflict with the CIW,” Patten continued. “The CIW is seeking to negotiate wages and working conditions of employment with the growers and the CIW is trying to drag Publix into these negotiations. This is a labor dispute and we simply aren’t involved. As you know, tomatoes are just one example of the more than 35,000 products sold in our stores. With so many products available for sale to customers, the reality is that there is the potential for countless ongoing disputes between suppliers and their employees at any given time. Publix has a long history of non-intervention in such disputes.”

For their part, the CIW also points to that same long history in invoking the words of Publix founder George Jenkins, who the CIW quotes as saying, “Don’t let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.” They say that this season, thanks to those companies who have signed on to the program, approximately 30,000 farm workers will have assured access to shade and water, the right to report abuses without fear of retaliation, and the ability to form health and safety committees in the fields, with zero-tolerance provisions for forced labor and sexual harassment. Gleeson, holding a bag of coffee from a Publix store, also pointed to other products carried in which the supermarket chain has committed to ensuring fair labor practices.

“With fast-food and foodservice leaders on board, Publix’s continued rejection of the Fair Food advances establishes a dangerous example for the supermarket industry that threatens to undermine these landmark, yet fragile, gains,” the CIW said in a press release.

“Although the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is not part of our direct workforce, they are our neighbors and citizens of our shared community,” Patten said. “We have always strongly encouraged our suppliers to work closely with their workforce, and their workforce representatives on any issues. Publix is unaware of a single instance of slavery existing in its supply chain. Publix is also unaware of a single instance of payment of less than the required minimum wage. As a community partner for nearly 80 years, it would be unconscionable to believe that our company would support a violation of human rights.”

The small group of riders pedaled through Ft. Myers, Charlotte County, Sarasota and Brandenton before pulling into Sun City Center on September 4. Along the way, they stopped at churches and Publix stores, both to protest and to pray. In Sun City Center, a few cars honked and some drivers stopped to shout out words of support for the sign-carrying bicyclists.

Two days later, after 11 days on the road and 200 miles, they arrived at Publix headquarters in Lakeland to personally invite CEO Ed Crenshaw to not only join the coalition, but to come to Immokalee to observe for himself the conditions in the fields. They were met instead by a company spokesman who offered to pass along their message to the CEO. After a short time, the spokesman told the riders he appreciated what they were doing and then asked them to leave the property.
Shannon Patten later told the Lakeland Ledger that the issue has nothing to do with the CEO personally. “This is a labor dispute, and they are asking us to get involved in something we are not part of,” she told the paper.

The CIW described it as disappointing indifference.

“Publix is a company founded and committed to our associates and the communities we serve,” Patten said. “For more than 80 years, we have supported our local communities, the economy, growers and farmers. We have earned the respect of our peers and have been consistently recognized on various ‘The Best of’ lists because of our values, mission and successful focus of making Publix the retailer of choice for our customers.”

She went on to say any campaign to support workers should support, rather than target, the associate-owned supermarket chain. In the end, she said the main thrust of the CIW campaign was to direct Publix to stop buying from two growers who have not agreed to the accord and instead to buy from one that is committed to it, East Coast Growers. Publix, she said, has already done exactly that.

The CIW, along with members of churches and loyal Publix customers are looking for something more: They want to hear it from the CEO.

Information about Publix is available at www.publix.com, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at www.ciw-online.org, and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida at www.interfaithact.org

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