Economy

Is Burger King Spying on Labor Activists?

"If you're a student in Virginia, how do you get access to a Burger King internal document?"

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have exposed Burger King for its role in attempts to infiltrate and spy on the inner workings of a CIW-allied organization, the Student/Farmworker Alliance.



Both CIW and SFA are headquartered in Immokalee, Florida, where tomato pickers are demanding Burger King join with other tomato purchasers to better the wages and working conditions throughout the tomato industry. The CIW launched a campaign against the company in 2006 after their former targets, Taco Bell and McDonald's, agreed to workers' demands.


Suspicious Emails


After running successful drives against two giant fast-food companies, organizers in Immokalee are used to corporate misinformation and public relations spin. With more than a decade of organizing under their belt, though, they had yet to worry much about the supporters who call the office and ask to help.



Organizers began to grow wary after receiving a March 8 email from a University of Virginia student named "Kevin" from the email address "stopcorporategreed at live.com." The same address had leaked to the Associated Press an internal Burger King memo stating that the company was considering cutting off its purchases of Florida tomatoes--a move that would devastate the campaign.



"If you're a student in Virginia, how do you get access to a Burger King internal document?" asked Marc Rodrigues, a Student/Farmworker Alliance organizer. "We wrote back that we'd love to send them an organizing packet and to send us an address. We never heard back."



Investigations heightened their anxiety. The email address originated out of a suburb of Miami, where Burger King is headquartered, not Virginia. "Kevin" had also requested access to the organization's upcoming conference call, but it wasn't until a few days later that the request stood out.



Rodrigues received a call March 11 from Cara Schaffer, who said she attended a local community college and was excited to support the campaign. Like the University of Virginia student, Schaffer immediately inquired about access to the organization's national conference call.



But the student organizers soon realized that Schaffer was not one of them--in fact, she is the president of Diplomatic Tactical Services, a Florida-based corporate espionage firm. According to the company's website, DTS specializes in "handling all types of investigative activity during strikes, organizational [sic] attempts, secondary pickets, negotiations, and decertification drives." It offers its corporate clients covert surveillance services and the ability to place undercover operatives inside target groups.



Schaffer joined numerous conference calls the organization held in March to prepare for upcoming actions, but never said a word nor identified herself during the calls.



The battle has been waged in cyberspace, too. An anonymous poster with the online identity Activist2008 obsessively posts derogatory comments on online stories and videos related to the CIW. A reporter from the Fort Myers News Press received similar messages from the email address "activist2008 at live.com," which she traced back to Burger King headquarters. The paper reported that the daughter of Steven Grover, Burger King's vice president of regulatory compliance, confirmed that her father posted the comments.



While Burger King has denied that it officially sanctions the surveillance and manipulation of Immokalee organizers, a spokesman told reporters that it cannot control the online activities of its hundreds of employees.



"When you realize the person posting those things is actually Burger King's vice president in charge of the ethical operation of the company's supply chain, it really makes you wonder just how high up does this whole thing go?" asked Gerardo Reyes, a member of the CIW, in the Fort Myers News Press.



Rodrigues said that the snooping isn't stamping out their enthusiasm. "Maybe we'll be a bit more careful in what we say on emails," he said. "We're not worried, though, because all they found out is that there's tons of students organizing actions and events to support our campaign around the country."