Farm Workers Plan Publix Hunger Strike, Brandon Democrats Told

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) unveiled plans to encourage Publix to join its campaign for basic labor rights and wages for Florida’s tomato harvesters at a meeting of the East Hillsborough County Democratic Club.


Fifty people will begin a “Fast for Fair Food” next month outside the Publix headquarters in Lakeland, it was announced this week in Brandon.

Hoping to win local support in their campaign for basic labor rights and wages for Florida’s tomato harvesters, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) unveiled plans for the hunger strike at a meeting of the East Hillsborough County Democratic Club.

“We’d like Publix to part of the solution,” said Jordan Buckley, a spokesman for Interfaith Action, a close ally of the CIW, who addressed the Feb. 14 meeting at the Barnacles restaurant on Providence Road.

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants employed in low-wage jobs in Florida. The agreement requires the grocery store to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes and to ensure better working conditions for tomato workers.

The Coalition has already won over two national grocery chains, Whole Foods and Trader Joes, to their cause. But Publix — a $25-billion, Florida-based company with more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast — is pivotal, Buckley said.

“We have the fast-food stores and the majority of the growers on board,” Buckley told the democrats at their meeting. “Now we are looking to get Publix on board. They will pave the way for the other major grocery chains. Companies like Wal-Mart and Kroger are all looking at Publix and seeing what they will do.”

The CIW is calling on the supermarket giant to sign the Fair Food Agreement, which would require the chain to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes.

The farmworkers’ message resonated with Democratic club members, said president Angie Angel.

“It’s not something that is new, we’ve been involved with the farm workers before, but I was really disappointed with Publix that the issue has not been resolved yet,” Angel said. “I am also concerned that [the farmworkers] have been pushed to such drastic action that they feel they need to fast to get the attention of Publix.”

“We view this as a labor dispute,” said Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten. “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. 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 non-intervention in such disputes.”

Patten said Publix has no conflict with the CIW: “We congratulate them on their success.” Publix would just like to see the extra penny per pound of tomatoes put into the price the store pays their supplier.

“They (the CIW) are saying ‘a penny a pound.’ We are saying put it in the price," Patten said. "We are more than happy to pay that extra penny. We can’t pay the extra penny to farmworkers because they are not our employees but we are more than willing to pay the extra penny for the tomatoes. As a retailer, we pay market value for tomatoes. We do not determine what the price is or should be, that price is set by the grower or packer.”

The Publix argument is specious, counters the CIW. The penny will be in the price if Publix joins the program. The CIW so vehemently contests the Publix position that it details counter arguments on the CIW's website.

The sight of hunger strikers on their doorstep, and potentially negative press coverage, next month is not keeping anyone at Florida’s largest grocery chain awake at night either. As Patten said: “This is not the first time they have done something at our Lakeland headquarters."

The six-day hunger strike starts March 5 outside Publix headquarters in Lakeland. The fast ends March 10 with a 3-mile march to Publix.

“We are fasting so that the people in charge of Publix can soften their hearts and sit with us to construct a reality in which prosperity is not based on the blood, sweat, and humiliation of farmworkers,” wrote Darinel Sales, one of the workers who will be taking part, on the CIW website.

“No food conglomerate has an excuse, least of all Florida-based Publix," he said. "Not only are the state’s tomato workers its customers, but the Publix website boasts about the firm’s 'community involvement,' 'diversity and inclusion' and 'commitment to our market areas.' It proclaims itself to be Florida’s 'neighborhood grocer.' ”

Formed in 2005, the East Hillsborough Democratic Club meets monthly at Barnacles. Ordering food and drink is done on an individual basis.

For more information, contact club president Angel at 813-334-8376. Email: demsinbrandon@aol.com.

marvin February 16, 2012 at 10:07 PM
Another great piece about the CIW's fast at Publix HQ by Barry Estabrook, writer for Gourmet and The Atlantic, is here: http://www.takepart.com/article/2012/02/14/tomato-workers-turn-hunger-strike
MD February 17, 2012 at 10:30 AM
Fantastic write up Kevin Brady, great to see you back here again. I'm an avid fan of your reporting and I'm looking forward to reading much more of your work :)
MD February 17, 2012 at 10:49 AM
Increases on the cost in my opinion paid by publix will not only enhance the quality of life indirectly for these immigrant workers who struggle greatly to survive on minimum wage but it will lead to hopefully better job condition, which will result in better quality and increased production. Could be seen as a win -win situation here if publix were smart enough to co-operate. As for the fast, sadly it has taken many great advocates for justice to campaign for basic human rights by this means. They fully have my support and i wish them well with having their demands met. A hungerstrike is not something taken onboard lightly unless as a last resort to highlight major concerns and issues. Good luck to these brave people who take on corporate America.
Gail Gottlieb February 17, 2012 at 05:17 PM
According to Jordan Buckley of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the pickers are paid a mere $.50 for each 32 pound barrel of tomatoes. At this rate, a laborer sweltering in the dirty fields must pick over three tons of tomatoes to gross $100. This sort of exploitation must not be tolerated in America. Publix should follow the lead of ethical retailers who refuse to allow labor abuses in their supply chain. This makes shopping at Publix far less of a pleasure.
Scottrey February 17, 2012 at 05:50 PM
What am I missing here? Publix says they are willing to pay the extra penny but not to the workers and the CIW says that the penny is included in the price thus Publix is not paying the workers directly. So why the disconnect? I am all for buying tomatoes from Whole Foods until Publix agrees on this even if that means going to Tampa, but what about Sweet Bay, Winn Dixie, etc. when are they going to be asked, or have they? Also, seriously what is the disconnect? Is there something else in the agreement that they are not comfortable with?
Jery Elliott February 22, 2012 at 02:49 PM
I can see both sides of this argument. Certainly the farm workers want higher wages and Publix wants to keep costs down. A penny per pound by itself is not a large amount, but when extended to every customer and possibly (in the future) to every produce item the dollar amount starts to add up. The other side of the argument will come later when (and if) Publix agrees to this increase and their customers start complaining that their prices are getting to high and then jump ship to Winn Dixie or Walmart or some other chain. The grocery business is one of extremely slim profit margins where customer loyalty is traditionally paramount. The economy of the past few years has changed customer loyalty patterns as people bargain shop, expand use of coupons, choose store brands, etc. Couple this with the expansion of low-price brands such as Walmart and you can understand why Publix is fighting this.
Jery Elliott February 22, 2012 at 02:49 PM
Whole Foods and Trader Joes have developed the loyalty of their customer base precisely because they mix the politics of environmentalism and workers rights with their appeal and pricing structure. Their customers are willing to pay more because these two food stores claim to look out for workers rights, only offer all natural options, etc. On the other end of the spectrum is Walmart who revels in their low prices at the expense of workers rights or how their good get to market. Publix falls between the two and offers higher priced 'organic' options for those customers will to pay more while also holding the line on prices and quality in general.
Jery Elliott February 22, 2012 at 03:00 PM
It's not your question that annoys me Scottrey, but your statements. I find that individuals making such grandiose martyred proclamations as your intention of going all the way to Tampa just to shop at Whole Foods to be a bit disingenuous. I do not know where you live or know your shopping patterns, but it sounds as if you are willing to spend the time and gas money to also pay more just to make yourself feel as if you are making a political statement.
Scottrey February 22, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Jerry, I don't know you and don't care to, if my comment annoys you then at least is accomplished something. There is nothing "grandiose" about my comment as my wife goes there probably twice a month as she works nearby, but I do not really feel the need to explain myself to you. Also what is your fascination with me and my posts that you feel necessary to always comment where I do? Stop stalking me!
Jeff Jeter March 15, 2013 at 02:49 PM
Publix lost a customer.


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