In January, the world's biggest company entered into a landmark collaboration with Florida tomato farmworkers to increase their wages and safeguard their rights. Many thought a tidal wave of restaurants and grocers would follow Walmart, as the company had already influenced American retail in so many other ways.
Not necessarily. Walmart had joined Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s as major grocery chains to sign the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, in which retailers agree to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes to increase workers' wages, and refuse to do business with growers who exploit their workers. Yet several major supermarket chains—including Publix, Kroger, and Ahold USA (which owns Stop & Shop and Giant supermarkets)—remain holdouts.
The CIW has petitioned Publix, which is headquartered in its Central Florida backyard, especially hard to join the program. Last week, farmworkers and activists completed a 10-day, 10-city advocacy tour that began in Columbus, Ohio—home of Wendy’s, the last major fast-food holdout—and ended with a 24-hour vigil in Publix’s hometown, Lakeland, Fla.
“Wendy’s and Publix cannot continue to reject the Fair Food Program after it has been accepted and implemented by 12 other corporations around the country and been proven to be a success in the lives of workers,” says Oscar Otzoy, farmworker and CIW member. “It was powerful for us to see how many people understood why we took 10 days off from work and sacrificed that pay to take the time to make the call to those corporations even stronger.”
Nevertheless, Publix isn’t budging. The company says it will not become embroiled in what it calls a “labor dispute.” In an email, a Publix spokesperson said the company would not even commit to meeting with representatives from the CIW and declined to answer a question about how rejecting the Fair Food Program aligns with its corporate sourcing standards. Maria Brous, Publix director of media and community relations, only said that the company believes growers are responsible for paying farmworkers more and then increasing the price they charge retailers accordingly.
“We have always said we are willing to pay a penny per pound extra,” she writes. “Our position remains the same: ‘Just put it in the price.’ ”
That's passing the buck to the growers, though, who are shielded from public pressure that's gotten the CIW this far. Retailers' promise to pay growers a penny more per pound of tomatoes has boosted farmworkers wages from $50 to $80 a day. (Companies pay an extra half cent per pound to cover routine undercover investigations of tomato farms looking for any evidence of worker abuse.) He says the program transformed from a labor dispute to a “historic labor partnership” when the four largest fast-food outlets, the three largest catering companies, and the country’s largest retailer of groceries signed on.
“Over the last many years, Publix has continued to use the same tired and deflated arguments as their refusal to join the Fair Food Program,” says Otzoy, who emigrated to the United States from Guatemala. “At this point the arguments are absolutely and completely absurd. We are seeing a transformed industry [coalition] that is made up of workers, 90 percent of Florida growers, and 12 major retailers. And, of course, the penny is in the price."
“And they know that,” he adds. “They are aware that the way they are describing the process is not accurate.”
The refusal of Wendy’s to join its fast-food compatriots in safeguarding farmworkers is also puzzling. Before joining the burger chain as chief executive, Emil Brolick ran Taco Bell, the target of CIW's nationwide boycott between 2001 and 2005, during which 25 colleges and universities booted the chain off campus. Brolick was at the helm when Taco Bell became the Fair Food Program’s first signatory in 2005.
Before the Fair Food Program, according to Otzoy, many Florida tomato farmworkers were routinely exploited, paid next to nothing, and even forced into slavery, a problem uncovered in Barry Estabrook’s 2011 book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Now, Otzoy says workers have received their first wage increase in three decades and have an avenue to speak out when they observe or experience wage theft, sexual or physical abuse, or other injustices in the fields.
“More important than anything is the difference in the way that they see us and treat us—with respect, with dignity, and as the human beings that we are,” he says.