Tomato Pickers Want 1¢ More Per Pound- Florida Farmworkers Stage Ten-Day Hunger Strike at Taco Bell Headquarters

More than 50 Florida farmworkers and their supporters put their health on the line to end sweatshop working conditions in the tomato fields that supply Taco Bell. Outside the fast food giant’s headquarters in Irvine, California, they held a 10-day hunger strike during which three fasters had to be hospitalized. The strike is the latest move in a boycott campaign the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) started over two years ago.

Despite Taco Bell’s lack of response, the strike and the public support it generated strengthened the visibility and resolve of the CIW, a workers’ center based in Immokalee, Florida. The CIW hopes Taco Bell will have to listen to a growing customer boycott. In response to protests organized by the Student-Farmworker Alliance, five university campuses have “booted the Bell” and nine others have declared their campuses “Taco Bell-free zones.”

SILENCE FROM ‘THE BELL’

Currently, the Immokalee workers earn a rate unchanged since 1978-40 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked. Taco Bell did not respond to the CIW’s demand for a one-cent increase in the piece rate per pound, an increase that would almost double the workers’ pay. Hunger striker and CIW founding member Lucas Benitez said he was not surprised: “This is the same arrogance that allows them to make outrageous profits while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. Now they turn a deaf ear to people starving outside their doors.”

Tired but happy to talk to reporters during Day Eight of the fast, Benitez explained why the workers had chosen to hunger strike: “The hunger strike as a form of protest is one of the most powerful symbols. For people in such desperate straits, nothing can compare to the sacrifices they already make in their daily lives.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, pickers earn an average of $7,500 a year with no benefits, no overtime pay for overtime work, no sick leave, no vacation pay, no medical insurance, and no protection when they organize.

A ROAR FROM THE CROWD

More than 1,000 strike supporters converged on Taco Bell’s headquarters on Day Five. Groups in cities around the country, including Philadelphia, Tuscon, San Francisco, and Ithaca, New York demonstrated and fasted in solidarity. At one point, 120 janitors working in buildings surrounding the headquarters came out to back the fasters.

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According to Benitez, representatives of the Orange County Labor Coalition, United Farm Workers, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Service Employees, and PCUN, the farmworkers’ union in the Northwest, took part in the Day Five demonstration.

The American Postal Workers Union, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the San Francisco Labor Council, the Coalition of University Employees Local 3, and the Oakland Education Association endorsed the boycott.

Tannis Ybarra, secretary-treasurer for the UFW, addressed the crowd and later added, “Our respect to the workers who are fasting. It takes a lot of courage. Cesar [Chavez] realized a long time ago that we are not going to win things by violent action. They have too much power. There’s got to be a better plan of action.”

BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED

At the end of the hunger strike, Benitez responded to Taco Bell’s current refusal to sit down to the table: “Though our bodies are tired from the prolonged fast, our spirits are stronger than ever, because this action has served to cast a powerful light on our working conditions.”

Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a fellow striker and CIW member, characterized CIW’s achievement in this way: “With each rejection, these good people felt the sting of Taco Bell’s disdain, the sting we have felt for nearly two years now. And with each rejection we have gained new allies, allies that will help us win our fight sooner and finally enjoy a fair wage for our labor. So though our fast has ended, today our boycott is stronger than ever.”

When asked what the Immokalee workers need from labor, Benitez said, “We hope organized labor can put more effort behind this boycott, just as we put our efforts behind union campaigns in Florida every chance we get.”