TAMPA — About 200 protesters from across the state picketed outside two food giants Wednesday in support of the people who pick tomatoes in Florida.
The farm workers, students and church members marched the mile from the Publix GreenWise Market in Hyde Park to the Wendy's restaurant on Kennedy Boulevard Wednesday afternoon. They held banners calling for boycotts of the two brands unless they join the Fair Food Program.
It's an effort that began in 2011, when Florida farm workers with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers created the partnership with Florida tomato growers and major food retailers to prevent produce purchases from companies that exploit their employees.
Since then the group has recruited 14 corporations, including McDonald's, Walmart and Trader Joe's, to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes to help increase workers' wages. The member organizations also promised to only purchase products from growers who adhere to a strict code of conduct that prohibits sexual harassment and forced labor.
Still, not all major food retailers agree with the program. For seven years, Lakeland-based Publix has resisted increasing pressure to join the FFP, and has no plans to relent anytime soon.
"It's very simple for us: They're asking us to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes for the workers and we're asking them to put it in the price of their product," said Publix spokesman Brian West as he watched protestors march along the perimeter of the Hyde Park store Wednesday.
"If you're not satisfied with your pay you don't go to the customer and talk about it, you talk to your boss, the people who pay your wage," West said.
Wendy's got on the coalition's radar last year, when the company began purchasing tomatoes from Mexico instead of it's traditional vendors in Florida after the FFP began seeking reforms in the industry.
A brief protest and candle-light vigil outside the Kennedy Boulevard fast-food restaurant during rush hour Wednesday marked the final stop in the coalition's 2,000-mile, 12-city "Return to Human Rights Tour."
One after another, potential Wendy's customers chatted with police officers and took photos with their cell phones before making a U-turn in the parking lot and heading to the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell or McDonald's.
"For me it means a lot because I see the changes where I work," said Cruz Salucio, as he marched across Kennedy Boulevard while scores of Tampa police officers on bicycles held back traffic.
"Before the bosses felt like they could get away with anything and you were in an environment where you weren't respected," said Salucio, a 32-year-old who has worked in Immokalee's tomato fields for about 10 years. "Now we're starting to get the things that other workers take for granted, like being able to punch in and punch out so there's a record of how many hours you work, or having access to shade and clean drinking water."
Other extreme abuses in the fields, such as sexual harassment and wage theft, have also declined dramatically since the FFP's inception, said the Rev. Noelle Damico, an organizer with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.
Students such 21-year-old Alex Schelle, a social services major at New College of Florida in Sarasota, have spread the movement to campuses across the country. Next week, students at New College will fast to draw attention to the coalition's efforts, Schelle said.
"It's really awesome how communities of faith and students can be drawn together to use their consumer powers to let these corporations know that this is already a successful program and all they have to do is join," Schelle said.
Despite resistance from Publix and others, the group remains optimistic, she said.
"I know we'll change their minds, we have before and we will now," said the Rev. Robert Murphy, 69, who marched with members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs.
"We're asking for so little, just basic human decency," he said.
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