First, They Took On Taco Bell. Now, the Fast-Food
New York Times May 22, 2005
Tejano music bounced off the one-story buildings of
this farming town and the smell of tamales filled the
air as scores of revelers danced into the night outside
the headquarters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The celebration marked a hard-fought, unlikely victory
by the workers, a coalition of mostly Guatemalan and
Mexican tomato pickers, over one of the nation's fast-
food giants, Taco Bell.
They led a four-year boycott against the chain until it
agreed in March to pay a penny more per pound for
Florida tomatoes and to adopt a code of conduct that
would allow Taco Bell to sever ties to suppliers who
commit abuses against farmworkers.
With that triumph, the farmworkers group is turning to
a larger target: the rest of the fast-food industry.
The coalition has sent letters to executives at
McDonald's, Subway and Burger King asking them to
follow Taco Bell's lead.
"When we started this, it was like man going to the
moon - nobody thought it was possible," said Lucas
Benitez, a leader of the coalition. "With the help of
people around the country, we have built a way to go to
the moon. Now we must continue moving forward."
Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum Brands, based in
Louisville, Ky., estimates it will pay the Florida
tomato growers an extra $100,000 a year, a cost that
company officials said would not be passed on to
The fast-food chain, which buys 10 million pounds of
Florida tomatoes a year, has also agreed to help the
farmworkers persuade the other fast-food chains, and
eventually supermarket retailers, to increase pay and
monitor suppliers to make sure farmworkers are not held
against their will, beaten or forced into indentured
"This is an industrywide approach to get all the
growers on board, and then also get all the quick-food
restaurants and retail supermarkets to join with us in
that effort," said a Taco Bell spokeswoman, Laurie
McDonald's says it already has a code of conduct for
suppliers that prohibits forced labor and child labor,
and demands that workers receive fair compensation.
A Burger King spokeswoman said the company's chairman
had not read the coalition's letter, but she said that
the chain also had a code of conduct for suppliers.
A spokeswoman for Subway said on Wednesday that the
company could not immediately comment because it had
only received the letter the previous day.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers formed a dozen years
ago to help increase the wages of farmworkers, who earn
as little as 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket of
tomatoes picked, according to the group.
In the late 1990's, the coalition began investigating
slavery cases in which farmworkers were being beaten
and held against their will by labor contractors.
A coalition member, Romeo Ramirez, went undercover to
help the authorities build a case, taking a job with
labor contractors suspected of illegally detaining
The coalition has helped investigate five slavery cases
that have gone to trial and is in the middle of
investigating three new cases in central and north
Mr. Benitez, Mr. Ramirez and Julia Gabriel, also a
coalition member, received the Robert F. Kennedy Human
Rights Award in 2003 for investigating farmworker