Victory for Florida Farmworkers: Taco Bell Settles Boycott

Yielding to growing pressure from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters across the country, Taco Bell and its parent company Yum Brands announced March 8 that they had signed an agreement to “work with the CIW to improve working and pay conditions for farmworkers in the Florida tomato fields.”

Yum, the world’s largest restaurant company, had met the farmworkers’ demands, and the long CIW-organized boycott of Taco Bell was ended.

Yum’s decision to meet the CIW’s precedent-setting demands was greeted as a historic achievement by even the most battle-hardened veterans of the farmworker movement. United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez commented at the March 12 celebration in Louisville, “It is the most significant victory since the successful grape boycott led by the UFW in the 1960s in the fields of California.”

NEW STANDARDS

The agreement addressed the two central objectives of the CIW’s campaign by improving long-stagnant wages for workers in the tomato harvest and by moving toward equal rights for farmworkers, who are excluded from many of the key rights and protections that almost all other U.S. workers enjoy (including the right to organize and the right to overtime pay).

The agreement set several precedents. It establishes the first-ever direct, ongoing payment by a fast-food industry leader to farmworkers in its supply chain (the “pass-through”). It will nearly double the percentage of the final retail price that goes to the workers who pick the produce.

The agreement sets up the first-ever enforceable code of conduct for agricultural suppliers in the fast-food industry and names the CIW as an investigative body for monitoring worker complaints. It provides market incentives for agricultural suppliers willing to respect their workers’ rights, even when those rights are not guaranteed by law.

The agreement commits Taco Bell to buy Florida tomatoes only from growers who agree to the pass-through and to provide complete records of Florida tomato purchases and growers’ wage records to the CIW.

This seminal agreement stands to establish a path that will be traveled by many more workers in years to come, workers whose wages and working conditions are squeezed by the unprecedented buying power of fast-food and supermarket giants like Yum Brands, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart.

In the words of CIW member Rolando Sales, “This change isn’t just for us, it’s for everyone. We should be respected and treated as human beings with rights just as any others.”

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

In an era where unionization rates and company-paid benefits are dropping, how did immigrant farmworkers from one of the country’s poorest towns take on a corporate giant larger than McDonald’s and win?

The CIW combined constant attention to grassroots organizing of its base in the farmworker community of Immokalee with a sophisticated national campaign that extended the CIW’s power wherever Taco Bell restaurants were found, from Florida to California.

At home in Immokalee, the CIW educated farmworkers about their industry and their rights and forged a community identity that doesn’t exist in other Florida farmworker communities. This growing awareness sparked a series of intense actions from 1995 to 2000—including three community-wide general strikes, a 30-day hunger strike by six CIW members, and a 240-mile march across Florida—resulting in several wage raises from 1997 to 1999.

But those efforts eventually ran up against the obstacles that have historically limited farmworker organizing on the East Coast, in particular the exemption of agricultural workers from the National Labor Relations Act, which left workers who organized in Immokalee with no protections when organizing on the job.

The CIW gradually expanded its analysis of the agri-food industry to include the end buyers of the produce they pick, buyers like fast-food giant Taco Bell.

The CIW discovered that these corporations use their growing market clout to demand lower and lower prices from the growers, who in turn squeeze their workers to maintain their own profit margins.

NETWORK OF ALLIES

To build the national reach they would need to take on a company like Taco Bell, the CIW set about developing a strong network of allies across the country, with a particular focus on campus-based organizing, large-scale mobilizations, and winning national religious and labor endorsements.

The Student/Farmworker Alliance was formed and quickly established an unprecedented record of success, eventually “Booting the Bell” from 22 campuses, including UCLA, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago.

From its inception the boycott won the endorsement and assistance of the UFW. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the American Postal Workers Union followed. Jobs with Justice chapters played a vital role by connecting CIW tours with local groups and helping build rallies and pickets around the country.

The boycott also helped strengthen a loose network of workers centers, including the Miami Workers Center, Mississippi Workers Center, Make the Road by Walking, in Brooklyn, and the Korean Immigrant Workers Association in Los Angeles.

The national network of allies was empowered to act locally to advance the boycott, but committed to following always the workers’ lead from Immokalee. That leadership was communicated both through face-to-face tours by workers and extensive use of the web-based media to tell their story.

The CIW’s website, for example, averaged half a million hits a month, a number that surged to nearly 500,000 per week during their frequent national actions.

This highly coordinated but decentralized strategy created a powerful combination of local and national-level actions that brought unprecedented pressure on Taco Bell to seek a resolution.

‘FAIR FOOD’

While this victory is historic, the March 8 agreement with Taco Bell is only the beginning of a much larger campaign to make fast food “fair food.”

In the words of Lucas Benitez, an elected leader of the CIW, “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.”

Elly Leary is a labor activist who has worked with CIW in Florida. You can find more information on the agreement online.

To read in more detail about the strategies that enabled the Immokalee workers to win, when so many other boycotts have failed, see A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2.