Still fighting for a penny per pound

Published March 2, 2012

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."

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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.