TAMPA — The Coalition of Immokalee Workers doesn't give up.
Since it organized a national boycott against Taco Bell in 2001, each company it has asked to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound has agreed to do so.
The group often has to march and picket. It took them four years to persuade Taco Bell. But they've won every battle, including campaigns aimed at McDonald's and Burger King.
Now the coalition has its sights set on Publix.
This weekend, supporters will march in Tampa and to Publix's headquarters in Lakeland. They'll hold a prayer vigil, picket and set up their portable modern-day slavery museum, which highlights cases of exploitation, including the case of four Immokalee family members who enslaved migrant workers from 2005 to 2007.
The coalition's request to pay pickers a penny more per pound would nearly double their wages to about 2.2 cents a pound, said coalition staff member Julia Perkins. That's vital because tomato pickers are paid so little, which makes exploitation easy, said Jordan Buckley, who helped organize the march.
"Slavery doesn't occur in a vacuum," he said. "It only takes place where labor abuses are prevalent, where there's massive poverty, lack of voice and lack of rights."
A U.S. Department of Labor survey updated in January shows that the median income for a farm worker is between $2,500 and $5,000. Three-fourths earn less than $10,000 annually.
By law, however, farm workers' employers are required to pay at least minimum wage. The Florida Tomato Growers Association has maintained that's occurring in Florida fields.
The pact the coalition wants Publix to sign also states that the company can't buy from suppliers found to be using slave labor.
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the coalition's argument should be with the suppliers who pay the pickers, not with Publix.
"This is a labor dispute between a supplier and their employees, and we do not intervene in labor disputes," she said.
Gerardo Reyes, who is with the coalition, said that's not a valid excuse.
"Publix is using their incredible buying power to depress the prices that they're paying," he said, "which makes the sellers reduce their production costs and makes the workers continue to receive miserable wages."
Patten said Publix is simply paying fair market prices. She also said that Publix buys from East Coast Growers, not Six L's or Pacific, where the 2005-2007 slavery incident occurred.
"We don't know of a single instance of slavery in our supply chain," she said. "If we heard about such a thing, we'd automatically contact the appropriate law enforcement agency."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.