Migrants protest at Taco Bell
By ANDREW MEACHAM
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- About 200 people, many of them chanting and carrying signs, gathered Sunday outside a Taco Bell restaurant to protest working conditions for Florida's migrant farm workers.
Staff members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said they organized the demonstration after trying unsuccessfully to persuade produce growers and Gov. Jeb Bush to meet with them. Sunday's event capped a three-day rallying effort at area colleges and churches that helped draw marchers and bystanders to Taco Bell at 5210 34th St. S.
Since last month, protesters have marched to the Governor's Mansion and a Taco Bell in Tallahassee and also gathered at Taco Bells in Gainesville and Bradenton. The restaurant chain is a primary consumer of tomatoes from Six L's Packing Co. Inc., which workers blame for many of the conditions they are trying to change.
"People need to understand that it's a very tiny amount of money these people are asking for," said Richard Bittmann of the Tampa Bay Action Group, which supports the workers. "The corporate powers that buy the tomatoes and the growers themselves are making dramatic income off the labor of these people and they are giving them nothing in return."
Taco Bell area representative Tony Capley said Sunday the company would have no comment.
Workers and organizers slept on the floor Saturday night at Lakewood United Church of Christ at 2601 54th Ave. S in St. Petersburg. On Sunday morning, they spoke through translators there and at other churches, including Bethel Community Baptist Church at 1045 16th St. S and Lakeview Presbyterian Church at 1310 22nd Ave. S.
They told about their hardships picking tomatoes and chili peppers, and about how they're paid 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket they fill.
Francisca Cortez, 18, immigrated to Immokalee from Oaxaca, Mexico, a little more than six months ago. Six days a week, she gets up at 4 a.m. and rides a bus to the fields, returning home around 5 p.m.
The mobile home she shares with her sister and five other workers rents for $280 a week, or more than $1,120 a month. Cortez said she had grossed $250 on her best week, but other weeks makes only about $100 before taxes.
"Sometimes you find work and sometimes you can't," she said. "We want them to know we are the people who bring food to their table."
State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, said he was thinking about sponsoring a bill that would require higher pay for farm workers.
"We'll certainly give it a shot," Peterman said. "This has been a long fight."
Eckerd College mathematics professor Walter Walker watched from the sidelines as about 130 marchers snaked outside the restaurant. He had heard workers speaking at the Lakeview service, where guest minister Al Woods had preached a sermon about David and Goliath.
"I understood what they were doing and I agreed with it," said Walker, 50. "I think they made their point."
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