ST. PETERSBURG — For 9-year-old Jalen Dixon and his mother, Teneka Dixon, a Sunday trip to the supermarket turned into a teaching moment about labor disputes.
When the mother and son pulled into the Publix parking lot on 54th Avenue S about 3 p.m., more than 100 protesters were marching along the sidewalk, shouting in English and Spanish: "No more slaves, pay the minimum wage," among other provocative slogans.
The protesters were backing the Coalition of Immokalee workers, a community group made up of farmworkers from southwest Florida. In the past, the group has pressured large companies like McDonald's and Whole Foods to pay more for tomatoes harvested by migrant workers.
Now, the coalition has moved on to Florida's largest supermarket chain.
Instead of ignoring the gaggle of community groups, farmworkers and labor activists bristling with an arsenal of megaphones and colorful signs, Dixon took her son toward the fracas.
"They're not really getting paid," she told him.
For several minutes, the pair watched. They listened to a farmworker shout demands through a megaphone in Spanish, and a volunteer translate to English.
In short: The group wants Florida's green giant of grocery stores to pay its suppliers a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, an increase that could represent a nearly twofold increase in farmworkers' daily wage.
Publix representatives hovered nearby. The company had cameramen capturing the action. St. Petersburg police officers also stood vigil, keeping the protest off Publix property, and the passing cars away from the protesters.
The mother explained to her son why so many people seemed so angry.
"It's a hard thing to do. It's a lot of hours," Dixon said. "You don't want to work 10, 12 hours in a field and only make pennies, right?"
The boy shook his head. Decidedly, no.
Publix representative Shannon Patten, who has been present at most of the coalition's supermarket protests around the state in recent weeks, said the workers' efforts are misplaced.
"It's a dispute between the farms and the farmworkers," Patten said. "We just don't get involved."
Patten said Publix does not set the price of tomatoes and pays market value for its produce.
One of the farmworkers who had come from Southwest Florida for the protest, Silvia Perez, had strong words for the Fortune 500 company. "Publix has two options. They can embrace fair wages, or buy from a harvest of shame," Perez said.
And for a mother teaching her son a thing or two about wages and tomatoes, market value might not be good enough.
"They don't set the price, but they should still do the right thing," Dixon said.
About done with the day's lesson, Jalen piped up.
"Can we get something from Publix now?" he said.
"Sure. Let's get some ice cream. But do you think we should get tomatoes here?" Dixon asked.
"No," her son said.
Dominick Tao can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 580-2951