Tomato pickers' pressure brings a precious penny
A precedent-setting deal gives pickers who harvest McDonald's tomatoes an extra cent per pound.
By James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Published April 16, 2007
McDonald's signature hamburger, the Big Mac, doesn't even come with a slice of tomato. The global fast-food giant buys a scant 1.5 percent of Florida's tomato crop.
But when a coalition of Florida farm workers pressured McDonald's last week into handing a 75 percent raise to tomato pickers, the decision was judged a precedent that could upset the fruit cart all across Florida.
Mickey D's bowed to a two-year "fair food" campaign led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named for the agricultural town south of Tampa Bay in Collier County and representing mostly pickers from Mexico. It was the CIW's second deal with the fast-food industry. In 2005, after four years of farm worker protests and boycotts, Taco Bell parent Yum Brands agreed to similar pay concessions.
Fresh off the celebratory hand shaking and photo shoot at Atlanta's Carter Center, where the deal was announced, CIW is plotting its next move: turning up the broiler on Miami-based Burger King, another gobbler of Florida produce.
"The campaign for fair food was never just about one corporation. It was about working with the entire fast-food industry to make changes," CIW spokeswoman Julia Perkins said.
"Eventually when Yum Brands and McDonald's get behind the idea, it becomes the norm for the rest of the fast-food industry."
Agricultural companies, including those operating in the tomato heartland from Ruskin to Palmetto in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, acknowledge the McDonald's precedent. That doesn't mean they're happy.
In their opinion, CIW used extortion and manipulated the media to blacken the name of the $500-million industry. They resent that burger behemoth McDonald's, several steps up the supply chain, can dictate how to pay workers for other companies. They complain that higher-priced domestic tomatoes could, like cucumbers and squash before them, eventually surrender the market to cheaper Latin American imports.
"Obviously, they made a corporate decision to play ball," said Reggie Brown, vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange in Maitland. "We're disappointed."
McDonald's didn't play ball from the start. Initially, it insisted its 15-year-old code of conduct for suppliers was enough to ensure decent working conditions in the fields. So the farm workers borrowed tactics that had already proved effective against Taco Bell.
Rallies and protests - most recently a "2007 McDonald's Truth Tour" - increasingly generated bad publicity, especially when words like "slavery" were tossed about.
CIW allies made minimal purchases of McDonald's stock to give them a seat at the shareholders table. They slipped a resolution on workers rights into the agenda of the company's May 24 annual shareholders meeting. McDonald's tried, and failed, to pull the resolution.
For last week's truth tour, a caravan of farm workers headed to Chicago to rally in front of the chain's headquarters, supported by the likes of AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, the Presbyterian Church USA and activists. Though the April 9 agreement with McDonald's made the tour less protest and more celebration, it went on as scheduled.
McDonald's denies it caved to CIW pressure and frames the agreement as corporate enlightenment. Pickers who harvest McDonald's tomatoes will get an extra penny a pound. It amounts to a raise of about 75 percent because pickers now make 40- to 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket, or about 1.3 cents a pound.
"We reached the point where we both concluded the end result would be far more impactful, far more sustainable, if we worked together instead of separately," McDonald's spokesman Bill Whitman said.
Based on the 15-million pounds of Florida tomatoes the company buys, the extra cent could cost McDonald's $150,000 a year. It's a blip in a company that posted a profit of $2.9-billion last year.
"It's less about what it costs McDonald's. It's more important what it's going to do for the men and women in the fields," Whitman said.
The burden on Florida's independent growers is potentially greater. If the 1-cent raise were expanded across all the state's tomato farms, growers would pay million of dollars more in wages each year. With production of about 1.3-billion pounds a year, tomatoes are the state's largest vegetable crop.
CIW views tomato pickers as chronically underpaid. Wage rates for such workers haven't budged in decades. But low wages are a product of supply and demand, and here CIW's own clientele plays a role. A flood of mostly illegal immigrants from Latin America ensures a steady supply of migrant labor to work at prevailing rates. The tomato industry says good workers earn the equivalent of $9 to $11 per hour in a season that runs from late September to mid July.
What troubles Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, is that the pay hike applies only to Florida.
"McDonald's should hold all of its vendors to the same standards across the board," Lochridge said. "Farm workers in Florida should be treated the same as those in California and Mexico. We don't want to see Florida workers placed at a competitive disadvantage."
But CIW's Perkins calls the agricultural industry an "equal opportunity exploiter" that needs prodding if it is to ease workers' plight.
Florida's tomato crop is too dominant - nearly 90 percent of the country's domestic winter supply comes from here - to droop from foreign competition, she said.
"We didn't see the tomato market shift after the Yum Brands agreement," Perkins said, "This is something consumers have called for. Consumers are asking for fair food, not just fast food."
James Thorner can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3313.
About the deal with McDonald's
The farm workers' agreement with McDonald's that takes effect during the 2007 tomato growing season has three major parts:
1. Workers get an extra penny for every pound they pick. It's about 75 percent more than they make now. It can add up to more than $50 to $100 per week for some pickers.
2. McDonald's will require its suppliers to follow a stronger workplace code of conduct written in collaboration with farm workers.
3. A third party will monitor conditions in the fields and ensure workers get the extra penny as promised.
Who might be next in the 'fair food' fight
Burger King: The No. 2 hamburger chain with 7,200 U.S. restaurants has bucked pressure from CIW, including a picket outside its Miami headquarters in February. Instead, the burger giant has offered to find jobs for migrant farm workers in its restaurants and supports various agricultural reforms independent of CIW.
Subway: The world's largest submarine sandwich chain runs more outlets in North America than McDonald's. Aside from providing form letters addressed to Subway's Connecticut headquarters, CIW has yet to take on Subway, a privately held company not beholden to shareholder pressure.
Wendy's: Its 6,670 outlets make Wendy's the world's third-largest quick-service burger joint. Wendy's generally doesn't sell its franchises food and supplies, except for buns and giveaway toys. That decentralization complicates farm worker campaigns against the Ohio company.
[Last modified April 13, 2007, 19:35:25]
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