Farmworker Protest Hits Burger King’s Greed

by Marty Goodman

MIAMI – A November 30th demonstration of more than 1500 farmworkers and supporters marched in Miami to the national headquarters of the giant Burger King corporation to demand that it pay farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida one more penny a pound to pick tomatoes and improve working conditions. Observers have called conditions in this Central Florida town, “modern day slavery.” Many of the Miami marchers wore T-shirts with “Exploitation King” imposed over Burger King logos.

“Thanks to this big giant, all of us are here today to demand change. But, the bigger they are the harder they fall,” said Lucas Benitez , co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The march was organized by the 4,000 member-strong CIW, which was founded in 1993.

A 1-penny per pound raise would be the farmworker’s first since 1978. Propaganda by the Florida Tomato Growers Association falsely portrays farmworkers as moderately well-off, making $24,900 per year on average. However, a survey of Department of Labor records for 2006 reveals that the average Immokalee farmworker’s yearly salary is $10 to $12 thousand – actually less due to the inclusion of managers and supervisors in the survey. To earn the minimum wage for a ten-hour day a worker must harvest over 2 ½ tons of tomatoes!

The workforce is roughly 50% Mexican and 30% Guatemalan, including many Haitians and African Americans.

The march was supported by several unions such as SEIU, UNITE HERE, TEAMSTERS, CWA, and others. Joining them were students and church groups, many from out of town (see the excellent CIW website http://www.ciw-online. org for photos and more). The Miami rally was preceded by some 30 rallies in October and November at Burger King (BK) locations throughout the U.S.

First along the 9-mile march route was the big investment firm of Goldman Sachs, which owns one of three controlling blocks of BK stock, a valuable source of profits during capitalism’s ongoing mortgage crisis. Two Goldman Sachs executives sit on BK’s Board of Directors. Over the last three years BK shares doubled in value. Last year, Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chief Executive of Goldman Sachs, earned the largest annual bonus in Wall Street history – based in large part on farmworker misery.

In answer to BK propaganda, many farmworkers who couldn’t come to Miami out of fear of losing their jobs, sent instead their worn shoes, which were placed in a street meridian across from BK headquarters next to a sign saying, “Doubt Our Poverty. Walk in our shoes.”

So far, BK hasn’t budged on a CIW agreement that includes paying growers an extra penny a pound and a mechanism insuring the raise goes exclusively to workers. The Florida Tomato Growers Association (FTGA) called CIW agreements “near un American” and likened them to “racketeering. “

Fast food chains purchase vast amounts of fruits and vegetables from growers in capitalist competition for the lowest prices, determined largely by labor costs. BK claims it cannot insist growers follow so-called “fair labor” standards. BK told the St. Petersburg Times, “”Florida growers have a right to run their businesses how they see fit.”

But, BK’s posturing is a fraud. As recently as March, BK announced strict new rules on how meatpacking suppliers treat chickens and hogs. Apparently, BK racists find chickens and hogs worthy of humane treatment, not immigrant farmworkers!

However, in 2005, fast food giant Taco Bell, owned by Yum Brands, succumbed to a CIW agreement, after a national CIW “Campaign for Fair Food” called “Boot the Bell,”which included hunger strikes by workers and students. McDonald’s folded last April.

Despite this progress, the reactionary FTGA has announced a $100,000 fine for growers who agree to pay the extra penny. Behind the scenes, the FTGA and BK has worked to undermine CIW agreements. Paying the penny more would cost the multi-billion dollar BK $250,000 a year. BK and the FTGA both insist they resist the penny raise because of “principle,” not cost.

Since the 1980’s, farmworkers, like the immigrant workforce as a whole, face intensified exploitation as capitalist competition become ever-more brutal. Farmworkers, moreover, aren’t covered by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act’s right to collective bargaining, overtime pay provisions and many other rights “given” most workers.

Since its founding, the CIW has organized several strikes, marches and hunger strikes, which it says were instrumental in halting the decline in wages, bringing workers back to pre-1980’s levels throughout Florida.

The CIW also combats the sickening growth of farmworker “involuntary servitude,” enforced by beatings, sexual violence and sometimes murder. Its’ efforts have resulted in the release of 1,500 farmworkers from outright slavery. A CIW lawsuit helped to land one crew leader a 30-year prison sentence. For its work, the CIW received a 2007 award from the prestigious London “Anti-Slavery International” at its’ 200th anniversary convention.

Marc Rodriguez, staff worker for the Student Farmworker Alliance based in Immokalee, told Socialist Action, “Burger King and the growers are working together to resist the demands of the farmworkers and take away gains with Taco Bell and McDonalds. This campaign will escalate.”