Farmworkers Beat Burger King, But Face Resistance From Growers


In the David and Goliath match-up between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the fast food industry, the little guy has tripped up the giant again. Bowing to an intense corporate campaign, Burger King signed an agreement in late May that conceded all of the farmworker organization's demands. But a backlash from the growers that supply Burger King has at least temporarily halted the deal's implementation.

It's the third time in three years the CIW could claim victory against a behemoth corporation. After a four-year boycott of Taco Bell and pressure on its parent company, Yum! Brands, the CIW convinced the company in 2005 to meet all of its demands: a penny more per pound paid to Immokalee workers who pick tomatoes bought by the company, an enforceable code of conduct for growers and the industry, and an assurance that the CIW would have the ability to monitor and audit the penny pass-down.

According to the CIW, the extra penny would spike the rate paid for each 32-pound bucket picked, from an average of 45 cents to 77 cents. At the current rate, workers have to pick two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes each day to earn minimum wage.

Last April, just a year into their campaign against McDonald's, CIW announced that it had also yielded to the farmworkers' demands. Soon after, the rest of Yum!'s brands -- A&W, Long John Silvers, KFC, and Pizza Hut -- followed suit.

Burger King took just more than a year to crack. One of the toughest opponents the farmworkers have faced, BK fell after a tumultuous campaign that included a surveillance scandal and continued pressure from consumers. Burger King agreed to the same conditions as McDonald's and Taco Bell, and more. The agreement includes an extra half-cent going directly to growers to cover the payroll and administrative costs that enacting the agreement would entail.

Resistance from Growers

Even with the good news, CIW activists say there's still much work to be done. Recent moves by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), which represents most Florida growers, have made it harder to transfer the corporations' commitments -- and pennies -- down to the fields in Florida.

In the early years of the CIW's history, farmworkers would target growers in the fields of south and central Florida, where wages were essentially unchanged since 1978. Growers said they simply could not afford to do anything about farmworker wages or conditions -- they were being squeezed by purchasing conglomerates run by corporate buyers. The organization's strategy of targeting the top of the supply chain, the mega-purchasers themselves, was born of these experiences.

Now, even with an ever-larger group of corporate buyers exerting pressure, the growers are still dragging their feet. After the April 2007 agreement with McDonald's -- which was to be put in place at the start of the growing season that fall -- the growers took measures to prevent the money from reaching farmworkers' pockets.

The FTGE told its members that if they passed down the corporations' pennies, it would charge them a $100,000 fine per worker, per paycheck. FTGE Vice President Reggie Brown called the CIW's agreements "illegal and un-American."

Growers conceded, and the FTGE succeeded in stopping the penny pass-through that had been in place since the CIW won the Taco Bell boycott in 2005.

According to CIW staffer Julia Perkins, all three corporate entities have agreed to funnel the pennies into an escrow account until growers get back on board, an outcome the CIW says companies have committed to helping bring about.

"As the news of the agreement [with Burger King] came out, Brown said that the FTGE was not going to be implementing the fine," said Perkins.

Brown's reason for the change of heart? The media had been paying too much attention to his extreme fines, in the light of the CIW's campaigns.

"We need to reach a tipping point," said Perkins. "The more buyers that we have that are telling their growers: 'lock in this agreement and work with us to improve the conditions for workers in your supply chain and you'll have our business' ... the more growers will want to participate."

A Scandal Royale

The CIW is used to pushback from their corporate targets, but when they began investigating mysterious phone calls and erroneous and threatening postings online, they were surprised when all leads pointed directly to Burger King headquarters (see Labor Notes May 2008).

Burger King was implicated in the hiring of a surveillance firm which posed as students to infiltrate an ally, the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA). Then, the CIW began to trace the origin of threatening posts that appeared whenever an article or video about the coalition was posted online.

Organizers and journalists eventually found the source -- Burger King Vice President Steve Grover, the executive targeted by the CIW. The company fired both Grover and media spokesperson Keva Silversmith, who was implicated in leaking an internal memo to the growers' association.

Under mounting pressure from the media and CIW supporters as a result of the scandal, Burger King gave in to the CIW's demands just weeks later.

"It was a question of using all of Burger King's missteps and outrageous behavior against them," said Marc Rodrigues, an SFA organizer.

Winning Playbook

The now-frequent question faced by CIW and its allies is, "How do you do it?"

"Having a strong network of allies that are committed and diverse and go at your target at different angles has helped the CIW win," explained Rodrigues. "We've had students protesting at restaurants, faith communities organizing churches to send letters to the company, and we've been targeting private equity owners."

Rodrigues and Perkins agree that the research they do to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their targets has been important. When organizers realized that Burger King is partially owned by private equity firms like Goldman Sachs and Texas Pacific Group -- which has a history of making deals with pressure groups to stem bad press -- organizers began linking their targets.

CIW corresponded with board members from the owning firms, and in 2007 started a march at the Miami offices of Goldman Sachs that ended at Burger King.

CIW organizers also say that their high-profile media presence has been crucial. It was a key element in bringing support from several U.S. senators in this campaign.

Organizers say they don't need a big PR firm to make a splash. "We've succeeded in focusing on the strong point this campaign has: the daily work of a farmworker and what that entails," Rodrigues said.

What has also helped the CIW succeed is a long-term vision for industry-wide changes in agriculture. As early as 2005, CIW reached out to all the major buyers of Florida tomatoes, a rogues gallery of corporate titans that includes Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway, and Chipotle, informing them of the poor wages and working conditions of tomato pickers in their supply chains.

"We're spending the summer figuring out what the next steps of the campaign are going to be," Perkins said. "All the retail buyers of Florida tomatoes have been made aware of the situation. No one can feign ignorance."

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