A Victory in the Fight for Fair Food

By Dana Williams  Writer/Editor, Tolerance.org

     Nearly four years ago, a group of tomato pickers from Florida decided to take on one of the nation’s largest fast-food restaurants, Taco Bell, in a boycott demanding better pay and living conditions at Florida tomato farms.
     This week, that grassroots boycott has ended, with Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, agreeing to meet The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ stated demands.
   Specifically, the fast-food chain, which purchases millions of pounds of Florida tomatoes each year from Immokalee growers, agreed to increase pay for tomatoes by a penny per pound. That increase will go directly toward workers’ wages. The company also promised to assist the Coalition in improving working and living conditions.
    Prior to the settlement, Yum! Brands pressured suppliers for volume discounts, contributing to the poverty of tomato farmworkers, who earn about 40 cents for picking a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes.
     "We are so pleased by the settlement," Julie Perkins, an organizer with the Coalition’s Student/Farmworker Alliance, told Tolerance.org. "We always expected that we would win; we just didn’t quite know when it would happen."
     Initially, Yum! Brands, the largest fast-food company in the world, refused to negotiate with the Coalition, claiming it would not take action until other companies in the industry did so. None did.
     "It has a lot to do with the mentality most corporations have," said Perkins. "Profits are most important to them, but I think they are starting to realize that profits are not the most important thing for consumers."
    Consumers, in fact, were instrumental in the success of the Coalition’s well-organized grass roots campaigns. Colleges and universities around the country supported the boycott with "Boot the Bell" campaigns aimed at closing or blocking Taco Bell restaurants from their campuses. Various high schools and community organizations also supported the effort.
     With the recent boycott victory, the Coalition plans to push for change in other areas of the food industry.
     "We want to reiterate the call for other corporations to do the same," Perkins said. "This is just one step in the battle for fair food."
     A celebration rally, which was intended as a protest prior to this week’s settlement, is slated for March 12 in front of the Yum! Brands headquarters in Louisville, Ky.

This essay originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the news and activism Website of Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.