It's outrageous. For every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick, farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., are paid 45 cents--nearly the same amount they earned 30 years ago. Yet McDonald's, which rang up profits of $2.28 billion last year, refuses to pay another 1 cent per pound to improve their wages.
I wrote about this at
AFL-CIO Now blog and wanted to share the farm workers' incredibly moving story.
In recent weeks, the AFL-CIO and several affiliated unions have joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which represents some 3,500 farm workers in calling for McDonald's and Chipotle Mexican Grill to pay the farm workers a living wage.
McDonald's response? The fast food giant is urging its suppliers to resist improved wages.
Students who took part in Student Labor Action Project week events last month staged rallies at McDonald's restaurants across the county. This week, union activists have sent nearly 10,500 letters to McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner and Chipotle CEO Steve Ells urging them to improve wages and conditions for farm workers. And on Sunday, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Bobby Kennedy, joined Immokalee workers in a rally to support their rights for a living wage.
You can take action to help gain a better deal for the farm workers. To send a letter to Skinner and Ells, click
And keep reading for a first-hand account by AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff who describes why the AFL-CIO union movement is supporting dignity on the job for farm workers.
It is 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning and John Sweeney and I are on a plane waiting to take off from Fort Myers, Fla.
We're not here to enjoy the beautiful beaches or water of the Gulf Coast but to put the weight of the AFL-CIO behind the efforts of Florida farm workers to win better wages, a code of conduct and a voice at work.
Last year, after a four-year campaign, the Coalition signed a groundbreaking agreement with Taco Bell restaurants that increased the payment from Taco Bell for tomatoes to be passed directly on to the people who pick the tomatoes.
Now the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has begun a campaign to get McDonald's and their sister chain, Chipotle, to sign a similar agreement. And the AFL-CIO is committed to helping push the campaign. This Coalition's demands of McDonald's and Chipotle are simple and should be familiar to union activities: 1) fair wages, 2) a code of conduct that the growers have to abide by, 3) a voice at work.
Yesterday, Sweeney met Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy, in Immokalee to listen to the stories of farm workers, inspect living conditions, celebrate Mass, mark the 40-year anniversary of the Kennedy-AFL-CIO support for César Chávez, pledge support for the McDonald's-Chipotle campaign and strategize about the elements of our support.
It was a great and extremely enlightening day. We saw 10' x 10' rooms in which three people lived paying $160 a week for rent. We saw 40-year-old trailers where two families lived paying $275 a week for rent. We heard stories of modern day slavery. Working with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Coalition has freed 1,000 enslaved people in Southwest Florida. Now six slavers are doing time in federal prison. And the Coalition trains FBI agents at Quantico to detect slave conditions.
Our day began with a Mexican lunch and a briefing on the Coalition and the campaign. Workers from Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti told us about their lives and their involvement and activism in the Coalition. They told us stories of bosses beating workers in the fields for stopping work to ask for water. Lucas Benitez showed us an old shirt covered with blood from a beating a 17-year-old worker had suffered eight years ago. That beating prompted the Coalition's first strike, which lasted five days.
They then took us on a walking tour of the farm worker community and farm worker housing. It was deplorable, outrageous and enraging. The workers are not just exploited in the fields with low wages, no voice, no benefits but also by the real estate interests in Immokalee. Horrendous housing for exorbitant prices. It was disgraceful for any place in the United States.
As we were walking, Sweeney said, "You know we're not shocked when we see conditions like this in Central America but this is shocking and shameful in the United States." We ended the tour at the Coalition's low-power community radio station called La Tulle or yours. When we got there, the announcer was speaking in an indigenous language from Guatemala. Both President Sweeney and Mrs. Kennedy gave greetings over the air.
Appropriately, we spent 90 percent of our time yesterday listening--including during the town hall meeting after the walking tour. There--under two huge tents--still more workers told of abuses and exploitation and of their successful struggle at Taco Bell. Members of the Coalition explained why such a large tomato consumer as McDonald's easily and cheaply could force major changes in workers' lives and families and in their living and working conditions.
Sweeney and Mrs. Kennedy responded with pledges of support and promises of action at McDonald's. Sweeney reported that already 10,000 AFL-CIO activists had contacted McDonald's to demand action. He committed that that number would multiply, and that we would find other ways to assist the campaign.
After the meeting, four local priests led a very moving Mass for the workers and the campaign.
With the sun beginning to set, we sat down to supper and to a strategy session. We kicked around some ideas to increase the pressure from union members on McDonald's and Chipotle. We agreed to maximize the response from all of us to our e-activists alert. I am hopeful the central labor councils can discuss and pass resolutions to get to McDonald's.
Our last discussion--I should say listening session--was about immigration. The Coalition leadership thanked President Sweeney and the AFL-CIO for its support for immigrant rights and for our engagement in the current mass movement for immigrant rights. They especially thanked us for our opposition to a guest worker program. They explained that the inherently coercive relationship between grower and worker in a guest worker program would increase the chances of modern day slavery.
We went to Immokalee to support workers organizing for a voice at work and because, as John Sweeney said, "When workers are in a struggle we want to join in and help."
When this Coalition and these workers win at McDonald's it probably won't increase union density but it will increase human dignity. That's why John Sweeney spent Sunday listening to farm workers in Immokalee, Fla.