Shaking of the Golden Arches

[Editor's Note: A correction has been appended to this story.]

Employers can respond in a number of ways to a worker's request to inspect unpaid hours.

For farmworker Santiago Garcia, a Feb. 25 attempt to seek compensation for time worked allegedly prompted his crew boss at M.E.D. Farms in southwestern Florida to punch him repeatedly in the face, then brandish a foot-long knife and threaten him with it.

Two days later, Garcia reported the incident to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- a vibrant, grassroots community group comprised of thousands of primarily migrant farmworkers. The multiple award-winning CIW has become internationally recognized for their struggle against the ongoing human rights crisis within US agriculture today.

In 1996, following a similar instance of a crew leader attacking a worker, 500 farmworkers in Immokalee demonstrated at the front steps of the accused contractor's house. A decade later, the CIW has retained the same logic and tactic, but their battle -- to hold individuals accountable for the exploitative labor practices that facilitate their profit making -- will soon transport them to a new site of protest: McDonald's World Headquarters near Chicago, Illinois.

Later this month, the CIW will launch a three-legged caravan entitled the "Real Rights Tour" that will shuttle scores of farmworkers from one of the nation's most impoverished communities -- Immokalee -- along with their urgent plea for justice in the fields, to the corporate offices of the largest restaurant chain on the planet. In particular, the CIW insists on fair wages, a seat at the negotiating table and a reasonable code of conduct founded upon universally-accepted labor standards.

Last Wednesday -- the one-year anniversary of the historic Taco Bell Boycott victory, which after four years resulted in the CIW winning a sizable wage increase, the right for farmworkers to participate in the protection of their own labor rights as well as unprecedented supply chain transparency -- the CIW unleashed news of the Alliance for Fair Food, a powerhouse consortium of supporters devoted to their cause of revolutionizing the agricultural industry.

Significantly, the Alliance -- which formally unifies the Presbyterian Church (USA), NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, United Students Against Sweatshops, Grammy Award-winner Bonnie Raitt, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, author Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and Amnesty International U.S.A. among many others -- commits not only to organizing with the CIW in their campaign against McDonald's, but indeed until total abolition of the cruel status quo afflicting U.S. agriculture today.

As outlined in the Alliance's founding document, farmworkers are paid a rate that has not risen substantially in almost 30 years. They regularly work with "no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation or pension, and no right to organize in order to improve these conditions."

The ugliest manifestation of systemically oppressive labor relations, however, remains as modern-day slavery. Five separate farmworker slavery rings have been uncovered, investigated and prosecuted since 1997 through the remarkable work of the CIW. All in all, their efforts have resulted in the liberation of more than a thousand individuals forced to work against their will in U.S. farm labor camps.

The emergence of the Alliance is crucial as the showdown between the Golden Arches and Immokalee activists may very well be determined by the strength (or liability) of each side's allies.

McDonald's' principal compatriot is the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), the lobby group of the state's agricultural growers. Together, they have crafted a counter-proposal to the CIW's call for real reform, deceivingly dubbed "SAFE": Socially Accountable Farm Employers. The SAFE proposition largely asks that growers heed existing labor laws and excludes consideration of wage increases.

Jay Taylor, FFVA's Vice-Chairman in 2005, recently admitted to the St. Petersburg Times that regarding the creation of SAFE, "I have to give CIW credit for bringing this issue to the forefront. We're being brought into the 21st century in the labor relations arena." Yet, while including representation of a few farmworker advocacy and charity groups, SAFE has revealingly shut out the CIW -- the state's only group actually led by farmworkers with extensive expertise in labor and human rights -- from their programs' development and implementation.

Troubling for McDonald's and farmworkers alike, Frank Johns -- FFVA's Chairman in 2004 -- has recently become ensnared in controversy related to the suspected enslavement of workers on one of his farms. In June, federal agents stormed the labor camp and soon after indicted one of the camp's crew leaders Ronald Evans Sr. in an attempt to halt what officials have described as "modern-day slavery." Evans, who worked for Tater Farms (owned by Johns), now awaits trial for more than 50 charges.

Despite Evans already having been charged with operating a crack cocaine ring at the labor camp, and possibly soon facing charges for the trafficking of humans, Johns nonetheless declared in July, "I'd like to think our operation is a little above average and I think Ron Evans is an above-average leader."

Similarly, McDonald's has also drawn fire for the return of Abel Cuello, a convicted slaver, to the fields of a key grower in McDonald's' supply chain. Labor rights advocates argue that in our modern economy multinational corporations like McDonald's not only possess the economic muscle necessary to purge unethical employers from their line of produce acquisition, they also bear the moral responsibility.

Cuello -- who, in 1999, was incarcerated for holding 27 people in involuntary servitude near Immokalee -- has reportedly returned to overseeing farmworkers in the employ of Ag-Mart Farms*. According to J.M. Procacci, whose company owns Ag-Mart, sales of grape tomatoes have risen steadily since 2003, and as reported in the New York Times last year, he specifically "attributes a significant part of the gain to McDonald's."

The battle lines are forming. On the one side, you have McDonalds and FFVA growers fighting to keep what could be called "just standard fast food fare." But on the other, there are the farmworkers and their increasingly determined allies confronting this system, shaking it up and remaking it anew, in essence demanding instead "just and fair food standards -- fast."

In an era of both slavery and Big Macs, time will only tell how long Ronald McDonald and company can continue to clown around with the suffering of those who supply their tomatoes.

*[Correction: March 17, 2006. The following statement has been disputed by the Law Offices of Allen, Norton and Blue that represent Ag-Mart Produce, Inc., "[Abel] Cuello -- who, in 1999, was incarcerated for holding twenty-seven people in involuntary servitude near Immokalee -- has reportedly returned to overseeing farm workers in the employ of Ag-Mart Farms."

The law offices provided this statement, "Abel Cuello does not currently provide field labor to Ag-Mart Produce. While he did work as an hourly field employee for Ag-Mart Produce prior to last fall, such work was under the direction of E&B Harvesting & Trucking, Inc. ("E&B Harvesting"), an entity which established Cuello's wage rate for the agricultural labor he provided. At all times, Ag-Mart Produce's payments for farm labor contracting activities were made payable to E&B Harvesting. For each week that he did provide field labor activities on the property of Ag-Mart Produce, Cuello's wages were deducted from the commission payments paid to E&B Harvesting."]

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