February 18, 2002

Weekend Rally Targets Taco Bell Practices

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Over 100 people, including members of the Cornell community, participated in a rally outside the Taco Bell restaurant on Elmira Road Saturday. The rally was held in support of higher wages for farm workers in Florida who harvest tomatoes for a supplier of the restaurant chain.

The event was part of the Taco Bell Truth Tour, a campaign of demonstrations organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization whose members are primarily “immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida,” according to the CIW website.

The rally and the Truth Tour were efforts to persuade Taco Bell to voluntarily pay one cent more per pound for tomatoes, which would “double the picking piece rate overnight” if the growers passed the penny along to the workers, according to a press release.

Students attending the East Coast Chicano Student Forum (ECCSF) conference this weekend participated in the rally. The Cornell chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) hosted the conference, which drew students from 19 member schools along the east coast, including all other Ivy League universities.

The demonstrators stood on either side of the road, holding posters, wearing red arm bands, and joining in chants like “one cent more feeds a family of four.”

The Ithaca Police Department was present and asked the protesters to stay on the sidewalk and off the private property of the restaurant.

Ithaca resident Tyler Blakeslee said that he didn’t know what the protest was about. “Taco Bell is the best restaurant,” he said.

Other Ithaca residents that were passing by asked the police about the protest. An officer explained the rally’s purpose to them, and one said, “We’re going there for lunch.”

The managers of the Taco Bell would not comment, but offered a statement entitled, “Taco Bell Values Fairness and Cares About the Communities it Serves.”

The document claimed that Taco Bell is not the largest purchaser of Immokalee tomatoes and that the company “does not have a direct impact on the wages of the Immokalee workers.”

The document concluded with the statement, “We thank you for your understanding of a situation unrelated to Taco Bell, and we hope you enjoy your visit with us.”

The protesters hoped to put pressure on Taco Bell to in turn put pressure on Six L’s Packing Company, based in Immokalee, Florida. CIW reports that Six L’s pays tomato pickers 40 to 45 cents per 32 pound bucket of produce, the same rate paid in 1978, according to a campaign flyer.

According to Max Perez, a representative of CIW, CIW has already taken action against Six L’s to try to raise wages, including hunger strikes, a march to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, and a march to the governor’s mansion.

“Because [Six L’s doesn’t] have a public image, no one would feel guilty,” Perez said, referring to the reason the above actions did not create as much awareness of the workers’ issue as a campaign focusing on Taco Bell has the capacity to create.

CIW is now putting pressure on Taco Bell “given the sheer volume of Immokalee tomatoes it buys … and … its size and economic strength,” according to the CIW website.

The CIW website explains that according to agricultural industry journal The Packer, Taco Bell is a “major client” of Six L’s. At a press conference, Iris Bordayo ’02, co-chair of Cornell MEChA, said the goal of the rally was to demand a dialogue between Taco Bell, Six L’s, and the pickers.

“The workers are supposed to be making 73.5 cents [per bucket],” she said.

The Six L’s website had no information about its labor force, but it did claim to command “approximately 12 percent of the Florida market for the past several years” as a tomato growing, packing, and shipping company.

Bordayo said that she hoped the community would respond in a positive way to the rally, and that attendees of the ECCSF conference would continue to take action when they returned home.

“Taco Bell is willing to be embarrassed today, but if we keep doing it, change will happen,” she said.

Cornell MEChA joined with CIW in the rally for a variety of reasons, according to Bordayo.

“Our organization was founded on farmworkers’ struggles in the 1960s. This [issue] is very much ingrained in our identity and being,” she said.

Perez said that farm workers do not have government protection to unionize under the Labor Relations Act. “Immokalee is more like a labor pool [than a town],” he said.

“[CIW has] changed a lot of things already, like beating in the fields. Now we’re focusing on wages,” said Perez.

Archived article by Emily Adelman