Penny For Your Thoughts?

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers began marching on Burger King last year in an effort to increase the pay for pickers by a penny per pound. According to the Coalition, if Burger King raised the picker’s pay by a penny per pound, their wages would nearly double: from $10,000 a year to about $17,000.

Burger King will have none of it. After the first march, the fast food giant didn’t take long to respond: in a January letter to suppliers Burger King asked for contingency plans should they decide to stop buying from the troublesome region.

The struggle has been going on for a while and it has caught the interest of lawmakers. Senators Bernard Sanders, I-VT; Richard Durbin, D-IL; Sherrod Brown, D-OH; and Edward Kennedy, D-MA signed a letter late last month urging Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to improve wages in the manner Taco Bell and McDonald’s have done.

“This is the year 2008. This is the United States of America and quite frankly I think all over this country people are shocked to learn that in America today slavery exists,” Sanders said at a press conference after a visit to Immokalee.

“As poverty increases and the middle class shrinks, these workers are seeing their standard of living decline,” Sanders explained. Millions of workers in the U.S. are “being forced to race to the bottom.”

“We are hopeful that we can reach a comprehensive solution with the CIW on ways to help the farmworkers in Immokalee,” Burger King spokesman Keva Silversmith told reporters for the Naples Daily News.

Meanwhile, in a prepared statement, Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange Inc., said: “On behalf of Florida’s tomato farmers, we find U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ statements regarding our industry completely offensive and we challenge their claims.”

Brown said the penny-per-pound plan is fraught with legal problems, including potential antitrust violations.

The senators strongly disagreed with this notion. In a letter to growers, they wrote: “Your expressed concern that the penny-per-pound program violates antitrust law does not hold up to even minimal legal scrutiny.”

A startling editorial a week later on the Naples Daily News called the fast food giant’s refusal to improve worker’s conditions “an overdue acknowledgment that what the coalition proposes turns fundamental economics upside down” by asking “buyers in the free marketplace pay more than they have to for a raw material… companies to take less of a profit or pass the added expense on to consumers in the form of higher prices.”

In response, Susan Smellie, writes the same daily:

I am told by the Interfaith Council, which works with the coalition, that this request applies only to fresh, hand-picked tomatoes, not to tomato ketchup. Many customers don’t eat a tomato at BK; no one eats a whole pound in a single meal. I weighed tomatoes at Publix, choosing a variety of sizes. They ranged in weight from 61⁄2 ounces to 12 ounces. By ballpark estimate, two medium-large tomatoes would weigh a pound. A tomato of any size would probably produce a good five to six slices, so we are talking about an increase of maybe one-third to one-sixth of a penny per meal for only those patrons who are requesting tomatoes. Salad eaters might use a bit more, but certainly less than a pound. Again, checking with the Interfaith Council, there appears to be virtually no costs to growers from passing along the extra cent to workers.Balance this against Burger King’s web site information: It had record revenues (up 7 percent) of $2.234 billion last year on systemwide sales of $13.232 billion. You object, in principle, to BK being asked “that buyers in the free marketplace pay more than they have to for a raw material.” (Wasn’t that once an argument for slavery? Wasn’t an excuse that things would cost too much if they had to pay workers used to perpetuate the system? And hasn’t this newspaper written about the good work of the coalition breaking modern slavery rings operating here in Florida?)

You state that BK would have to lose profit or “pass the added expense on to consumers in the form of higher prices.” If they passed it all to consumers, adding a single cent to the single menu item which is most frequently accompanied by tomatoes, BK would end up with more profit because of the number of ounces per unit involved. Taco Bell, which, I suspect, uses more tomatoes, did not pass costs to customers.

You also referred to the concern that the coalition could become a “union” or that agribusiness might be in danger of “losing control.” It is unclear why you would not have equal concern about the pressure from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which has pressured Taco Bell and McDonald’s to halt paying the extra 1 cent per pound, in McDonald’s’ case, totally voluntarily. Don’t these businesses have a right to support farmworkers if they want to do so? Click to read more…

And so the fight goes on.


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