Church-backed farmworkers demand justice from US burger giant

By agency reporter
December 2, 2007

A church-backed group of farmworkers and their supporters donned walking shoes today on 30 November 2007 for a nine-mile march through Miami to the corporate headquarters of Burger King to demand higher wages and better working conditions in Florida's tomato fields - writes Evan Silverstein of the Presbyterian News Service.

The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which receives support from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other faith groups, is calling on the fast-food giant to pay a penny more per pound to farmworkers harvesting its tomatoes.

The CIW also wants Burger King to establish a code of conduct for Florida tomato growers supplying the company, and ensure farm worker participation in designing the code and monitoring its suppliers' compliance.

The Miami march, which is part of a two-day CIW mobilization, was set to start at 9am (ET) outside the downtown offices of Goldman Sachs - one of three multibillion dollar private equity firms that own substantial shares of Burger King stock - before making its way to the hamburger company's offices where the march is to culminate with a peaceful rally.

Burger King announced in February that it would not agree to the penny-per-pound increase that has already been adopted by McDonald's and all Yum! Brands, Inc.'s companies: Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W Restaurants.

The CIW-sponsored event comes as the Rev Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PC(USA)'s General Assembly, issued a statement lambasting Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE).

The stated clerk accused the hamburger company and the FTGE, an agricultural cooperative representing more than 90 percent of the tomato growers in Florida, with using their leverage "to try and turn back the inevitable progress of human rights for farmworkers."

Meanwhile, the rally outside Burger King's headquarters is expected to feature street theatre, music and comments from Immokalee farmworkers, faith leaders, human rights activists and grassroots organizers.

Scheduled speakers were to include Arlene Holt-Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and other union leaders; Kerry Kennedy, international human rights activist, author and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy; and religious leaders, including Bishop Felipe Estevez of the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami and the Rev Kent Siladi, conference minister of the United Church of Christ in Florida.

"God's intention is for all people to thrive, not for some to profit from the suffering of others," said the Rev. Noelle Damico, national coordinator of the PC(USA)'s Campaign for Fair Food, who was to speak at the rally.

"Through prayer, marching and speech we will insist Burger King move now to work with the CIW to improve the poverty wages and abject working conditions of farmworkers harvesting tomatoes in Florida, conditions its own purchasing practices help to create," Damico said.

She said the Rev Kennedy McGowan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, FL, will address those at the rally at the behest of Tropical Florida Presbytery.

The rally will be followed on Saturday (1 December) by a conference titled "Our World, Our Rights," where CIW members and their allies will come together to reflect, strategize and share skills.

There will be roundtable discussions, panelists and a CIW-led plenary session, along with a keynote address by author and filmmaker Naomi Klein, before the conference concludes with a "Concert for Fair Food."

Most tomato pickers still receive roughly the same pay as in 1978 - 40 to 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. To earn $50 a day, considered a good haul, workers must pick about 125 buckets of tomatoes, or about two tons . A penny more per pound, for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes would provide the workers a 71-percent increase in wages.

"Stop trying to rob poor farmworkers of the first meaningful raise they've had in almost thirty years," Kirkpatrick urged Burger King and the FTGE in his statement. "It's malicious and shameful. These men and women deserve a fair wage for their backbreaking work - and their penny-per-pound wage increase comes at no cost to the growers and at little cost to the fast-food corporations."

Kirkpatrick said a report by the Miami Herald said the FTGE has privately threatened $100,000 fines for any of its members that participate in the CIW's agreements with Yum! Brands or McDonald's.

"Their coordinated tactics, which squarely target some of the poorest most vulnerable members of our society, are as morally repugnant as they are in vain," Kirkpatrick said in his statement, which was forwarded to Burger King and FTGE officials on 30 November.

The FTGE has said it believes the agreements that CIW reached with Yum! Brands and McDonald's for paying the additional penny may violate federal antitrust laws.

That's a notion Kirkpatrick shrugged off in his statement, saying Burger King and the growers exchange are merely deploying the "fig leaf of legal concerns to buttress their refusal to join a successfully implemented model for delivering improved wages to farmworkers."

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