Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Opinion

Still fighting for a penny per pound

Like many other consumers in Florida and the rest of the Southeast, I have made Publix supermarkets an essential part of my life by buying most of my food at one of their conveniently located stores.

But each time I buy tomatoes at a Publix, I am mindful of the back-breaking toil of the laborers who picked them and lugged them to a truck. I also am aware that for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, a worker gets on average 50 cents, a rate unchanged since 1980. Most workers earn roughly $10,000 a year. Besides low wages, they have no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation and no right to organize to change these conditions.

To raise workers' pay, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants, has been trying to persuade the $25 billion Publix chain to join the organization's Campaign for Fair Food. Publix has flatly refused to join.

Beginning Monday, the CIW and its supporters will begin a hunger strike at Publix headquarters in Lakeland in another attempt to get company to come aboard. The fast will end March 10.

The purpose of the Campaign for Fair Food, which began in 2001, is to get the nation's food retailers that sell tomatoes to pay an extra penny per pound for each bucket of tomatoes picked. Growers pass the penny on to farmworkers. A major reason for farmworkers' low wages is that companies such as Publix do high-volume, low-cost purchasing.

To initiate the campaign more than 10 years ago, the CIW asked Taco Bell to pay the extra penny. When the company balked, the CIW called a nationwide boycott of the chain. In March 2005, Taco Bell, a division of Yum! Brands, which includes Pizza Hut and KFC, agreed to pay the extra penny to its suppliers of Florida tomatoes.

Since then, other companies have joined the campaign, including McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's and food service providers Compass Group, Bon Appetit, Aramark and Sodexo. Many Florida growers are now supporters.

CIW leaders said the extra penny is making a positive impact. Still, Publix continues to hold out. I asked Shannon Patten, the company's media and community relations manager, why. In an email, she wrote that Publix pays market value for tomatoes and would pay an extra penny if growers and packers would put it in the price, but the company will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor.

"The CIW is seeking to negotiate wages and working conditions of employment with the growers and the CIW is trying to drag Publix into these negotiations," she said. "This is a labor dispute and we simply aren't involved. As you know, tomatoes are just one example of the more than 35,000 products sold in our stores. With so many products available for sale to customers, the reality is that there is the potential for countless ongoing disputes between suppliers and their employees at any given time. Publix has a long history of nonintervention in such disputes."

As much as I appreciate Publix's response to my questions, I believe the company is disingenuous when it accuses the CIW of asking it to pay the employees of other employers directly.

Gerardo Reyes, the CIW's spokesman, said more than $4 million has been distributed to workers since Jan. 11 through the Fair Food program, and none of the money has been paid in any transaction between retail purchasers and the workers. He said Publix officials know that.

"Not only does the Fair Food program not require what Publix is claiming, it does not allow it," Reyes said. "The fair food premium works like a fair trade premium does. And Publix pays and promotes that on every bag of its Greenwise Fair Trade Coffee. Tomato retail buyers pay a small premium to the grower on every pound of tomatoes they buy through the Fair Food program. The growers then distribute that money to their workers through their regular payroll as a line item on each worker's paycheck.

"Publix says they would pay the fair food premium if the growers would only 'put it in the price.' Well, they should consider their bluff called. The growers will put the premium in the price for any retailer who wants that, and we would sign a fair food agreement today with Publix stating they can pay that way if that is what they want."

If Publix joins the campaign, CIW leaders believe other giants such as Walmart, Kroger and Ahold will start to listen.

Comments
Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

A good reputation can vanish overnight, which is why Habitat for Humanity of Hills-borough County made a smart decision by announcing it would seek to buy back 12 mortgages it sold to a Tampa company with a history of flipping properties. The arrange...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe made a reasonable decision to charge Michael Drejka with manslaughter in last month’s deadly Clearwater convenience store parking lot confrontation. The shooting, which erupted over use of a handicap parkin...
Published: 08/13/18
Editorial: Politics aside, arguments are clear for moving appellate court to Tampa

Editorial: Politics aside, arguments are clear for moving appellate court to Tampa

It’s time to re-establish a permanent home for the state appeals court that serves the Tampa Bay region.It makes sense to put it in Tampa, the same as it made sense 30 years ago when the court’s operations began moving piece by piece up Interstate 4 ...
Published: 08/09/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: A big first step toward improving transportation in Hillsborough

Editorial: A big first step toward improving transportation in Hillsborough

The Hillsborough County transit referendum that has made the November ballot is significantly stronger than two efforts that failed to reach the end zone in the past decade. The one-cent sales surtax would generate enough money to meaningfully improv...
Published: 08/09/18
Editorial: Bondi should stop fighting smokable medicial marijuana

Editorial: Bondi should stop fighting smokable medicial marijuana

The fight for medical marijuana in Florida should have ended with the resounding 2016 vote authorizing it in the state Constitution. Instead, the battle for access drags on, with Attorney General Pam Bondi waging the latest round in a lengthy legal b...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: Warning signs of a mental health crisis in Florida

Editorial: Warning signs of a mental health crisis in Florida

They reach from South Florida to Tampa, from a high school to a college campus, from troubled kids to troubled parents. But there is a common thread connecting these tragedies: Florida has a mental health crisis. Addressing it would require spending ...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: Time to pursue or sink ferry to MacDill

Editorial: Time to pursue or sink ferry to MacDill

A proposal to use local money to ferry workers to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa always has been a questionable idea. The loss of nearly $5 million in federal money toward the project makes it all the more suspect. It’s time the ferry supporters off...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Blood on the streets of Chicago

Blood on the streets of Chicago

A hot summer weekend, when Chicago should be at its most livable, brings an undercurrent of dread and horror to this city. Summer is block party season, beach season, baseball season. But in some neighborhoods, summer is killing season — when armed g...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: FDA should not penalize premium cigars

Editorial: FDA should not penalize premium cigars

A well-meaning but poorly designed effort to keep tobacco from children could sink a niche industry and end Tampa’s fabled history as a cigar-making capital. The Food and Drug Administration needs to recognize not all tobacco products are alike...
Published: 08/06/18
Updated: 08/13/18
Editorial: New St. Petersburg Pier spot for Echelman art better, not perfect

Editorial: New St. Petersburg Pier spot for Echelman art better, not perfect

The St. Petersburg City Council has listened to the concerns of constituents and forged a compromise on where to install a signature public art piece in the new Pier District. Plans had called for an imposing aerial net sculpture to soar above Spa Be...
Published: 08/06/18
Updated: 08/07/18