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: firstname.lastname@example.org.