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Hundreds show up in Tampa to support tomato workers in Publix battle

TAMPA — The signs demanding "fair food now," and "justicia para los campesinos" looked worn.

But their owners pulled them out again Friday because their fight is not done. Though eight companies have signed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' agreement to pay tomato pickers an extra penny per pound, there are thousands of other companies that buy tomatoes.

On Friday, their fight was against Publix.

"What do we want? Jus-tice! When do we want it? Now!"

The Rev. Charles Mckenzie, of St. Petersburg, led a crowd of 300 in a morning rally at Tampa's Joe Chillura Courthouse Square.

"Will we give in? No! Will we stop? No! And their walls will come tumbling down!"

The coalition is best known for waging a four-year boycott against Taco Bell until the company agreed to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound. They've also persuaded McDonald's and Burger King to sign.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the company believes it is a labor issue between tomato suppliers and the pickers.

But the coalition and other activists at Friday's march disagreed.

Lucas Benitez, one of the coalition's founders, said that as long as Publix buys tomatoes at market prices, it's supporting farmworker exploitation.

Tomato pickers are paid 1.2 cents per pound now, so the extra penny would almost double their wages. The median income for a farmworker is between $2,500 and $5,000, a U.S. Department of Labor survey found.

"Today, we're going to tell Publix that it's time to end the poverty facing farmworkers," he said through a translator. "We will intensify as long as Publix does not come to the table."

A diverse crowd marched from downtown Tampa to the Publix at Busch Boulevard and 56th Street. Seasoned protesters led chants, and new marchers followed along. College students drove in from Kansas, mothers showed up with strollers and children who had been signed out of school led the march.

Candice Perez, 16, walked with her mother, Silvia Perez, a staff member of the coalition.

"We want Publix to know kids are involved," Candice Perez said. "It's also kids who want change for their parents."

That's what makes Ken Brown passionate. Brown, 45, flew in from Connecticut to help lead the event. He said fighting for fair wages is important, but he's most passionate about supporting migrant children who live in poor conditions.

After several speeches and prayers, the group headed out behind a flatbed truck with speakers that blared salsa, rap and Mexican folk music. Tambourines, chants and the sirens from police escort motorcycles added to the cacophony that drew the attention of people finishing up their workweek in downtown.

But the group also wants Publix's attention. They'll march from Plant City to Publix's headquarters in Lakeland today, and they'll picket and hold a rally in Lakeland on Sunday.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Karen Lopez, 25, offers incense Friday in a traditional Aztec ceremony at the Publix on Busch Boulevard. She supports the farmworkers’ weekend march to Lakeland.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Karen Lopez, 25, offers incense Friday in a traditional Aztec ceremony at the Publix on Busch Boulevard. She supports the farmworkers’ weekend march to Lakeland.

Hundreds show up in Tampa to support tomato workers in Publix battle 04/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 1:10am]

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