Noise-Makers, with Noisemakers: CIW Activists Protest Publix


Worldwide, food supply issues are rising to the fore like they have rarely in living memory. Wholesale and retail prices for meat, milk, dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables and other staple crops like corn, rice and soybeans have all risen, to the point of price hikes provoking riots in underdeveloped nations. Food-safety issues have been risen in regard to beef, chicken, pork and various vegetables, not counting the concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being used in staple crops and the hormones being given to cows, pigs and chickens. Last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s earthquake/tsunami inJapanhave both heightened the challenges of maintaining stable supplies of fish and other seafood.

Floridians have an inside track on food supply, which creates great advantages with equally-sized responsibilities. With theAtlantic Oceanon one side of the state and the Gulf on the other, we get better deals on the freshest seafood, and large amounts of land mean we’re able to produce a lot of our agricultural goods, even sending some to export. Citrus, dairy and vegetables are key products.

In Jacksonville, local student activists representing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) staged a sequence of actions on April 15 targeting a single very specific aspect of the overall situation: tomatoes. Not something we think about too often—they are just sort of there, always present, always a part. Recall, though, the tomato shortage of a couple years ago, where restaurants in the north briefly stopped adding tomatoes to salads, sandwiches and burgers unless directly requested by the customer.

Their efforts were directed at two of the major businesses in that neighborhood: Publix and Quiznos. Both are major consumers of tomatoes grown and harvested here in the state ofFlorida. According to the CIW materials, “Workers are paid virtually the same piece rate (40-50 cents per 32-lb bucket) as they were in 1978.” (That’s the year I was born, incidentally.) “If the 1980 piece rate had simply kept up with inflation, it would equal $1.06/bucket in 2010. This, in real terms … tomato pickers today actually earn about half of what they earned 30 years ago.”

Wages have fallen behind cost-of-living adjustments, inflation and the like in almost every field for most of the last 35 years, but the situation for low-wage earners like fast-food workers and the service industry is even more dire. The low wages and minimal or nonexistent benefits extended to waiters, waitresses and the people who pick our crops and prepare raw foods for distribution is not only an economic hazard, but it also contributes to the lingering health issues related to food safety. To the point, low-paid, undocumented workers may be themselves tainting the food through unsanitary handling, not to mention untreated illnesses they bring into the fields.

CIW leaders, and its estimated 4,000 members maintain that, for the tomato pickers, a lot can be done to alleviate these conditions just by increasing their pay by a single penny per pound. Since its founding in 1993, CIW has exerted pressure on a number of major businesses, like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and Whole Foods, in addition to food-service companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group and three of the state’s major tomato growers. While all of these groups have taken CIW up on the penny-per-pound pledge, Publix, Winn-Dixie and Quiznos have so far refused.

Quoting the fake Quiznos coupon: “Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes are among the nation’s most exploited workers: they earn sub-poverty wages, have no right to form unions or to over-time pay, lack traditional employment benefits such as health, sick leave or pensions, and have no received a significant raise in nearly 30 years. At the current rate, aFloridatomato picker must harvest over TWO TONS just to earn the equivalent of minimum wage for a typical 10 hour [day].”

Loaded phrases like “modern-day slavery” and the more cutesy “Harvest of Shame” (shades of Ed Murrow) are invoked elsewhere in the materials; no doubt, such conditions so exist. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, the average farmworker’s 2005 annual salary ran between $10-$12,000, which puts individuals right at the poverty line but keeps them behind a living wage ($18,486) by nearly 50%. These numbers get immediately worse when extrapolated for the thousands of families that must subsist on a farmworker’s wages: their average household income in runs between $15,000 and $17,499, well behind the poverty line ($20,650) and not even half of what a living wage would be in Immolakee ($44,993 for a family of four).

About a half-dozen people gathered in historic Memorial Park to coordinate prior to the protest itself. Many were current students or recent graduates of the University of North Florida. Some were local business owners; all were taxpayers (it was Tax Day, in fact) and almost all were loyal, long-time customers of Publix. One was a “token baby”, who was getting her first taste of political activism that day. A Publix manager circles the group briefly, presumably scouting them in advance.

A previous action held in November at the St. Johns Towncenter, a much larger area, came off without a hitch, so organizers and attendees were enthused, their smiles as sunny as the day itself. The events had been promoted in advance through the CIW website and the “Fair Food Jax” Facebook page, with flyers for advance distribution; I saw one in the men’s room at Lomax Lodge. They came well-prepared, carrying hand-painted signs, flyers for distribution, media kits for reporters, fake mocked-up Quiznos coupons and smart-phones with cameras, just in case. They also brought noisemakers out of plastic Easter eggs filled with pennies, as well as an arsenal of catchy slogans, mostly adulterations of pop songs and older political chants in the tradition:

“Down, down with exploitation/Up, up with the Fair Food Nation!”

“Fair-trade coffee? Sounds great/But what about the workers in your home state?”

“Oh Publix you, you got what I need/Just pay a living wage, just pay a living wage!” [Adapted from the great Biz Markie; nobody beats the Biz!.]

At 5:30 they left the park, chanting, crossing Margaret Street onto Riverside Avenue, going west toward the store, near the corner of Goodwin Street. A common refrain was “Si se puede”, Spanish for “We can do it”. They broke into two camps on either side of where the cars drive in, where they stayed for almost an hour. It was the perfect spot for such action, and also the perfect time; the store and parking lot were full.

Ultimately the group grew closer to 30 in total, not counting the dozens of motorists honking in solidarity and the bystanders who received their propaganda. There were journalists from the FloridaTimes-Union, Folio Weekly and the student newspaper at Florida State College at Jacksonville, the Campus Voice; UNF’s student media was presumably present, as well. Amazingly, no TV stations turned out to cover the event, which would have made for easy, compelling content.

Of course, not everyone was so easy-breezy. A couple drivers coming through the parking lot had a few things to say. A guy in a white Lexus yelled “Get a job!” at the protesters, pretty much all of whom have jobs. Another guy, driving a red SUV, declared loudly that “Unions suck!” Nevermind that his car was built with union labor, he was driving on streets laid by union road-crews, and that luxuries he probably enjoyed like a 40-hour work week, overtime, medical insurance, pensions paid leave and vacation time are all the products of union activity. It just goes to show how disengaged many Americans are from the reality of their own lives.

Publix managers and employees were gracious, more or less. Business continued as usual through the early-evening rush. Customers and employees freely engaged with the protesters. A few managers stood outside with the security guard, watching with no particular offense taken. If you are the business being targeted by peaceful protests of policy, it is best to just relax and not get agitated. One cent per pound of tomatoes is not worth calling the cops out, which is exactly what someone did.

JSO officers arrived about three minutes after the protest ended. By that time the demonstrators had returned to Memorial Park, so after talking to management the fuzz floated over there, with reporters just a few steps behind. They briefly checked to make sure the protesters were fully-informed about the laws and technicalities associated with such activities (permits, trespassing, etc.), while taking the opportunity to get themselves informed about the issues being addressed, before leaving. By “leaving”, I mean they met with a third cop just outside the park and shot the breeze for several minutes; they remained well after the protesters themselves had dissipated, mostly off to watch “The Neverending Story” at Treaty Oak Park.

The cops and the protesters were all basically the same age. It was all very civil, friendly and kinda refreshing, but still a minor waste of law-enforcement resources. It’s a good thing that exchange hadn’t actually occurred in front of the store, because it would have made store managers look bad, while drawing even more attention to the protesters and their cause. Ironically, despite any concerns, there was an actual judge in the store at the time, and he found it all pleasantly amusing.

At the end of the day, CIW will probably prevail again. If the organization has committed to doing similar actions at more Publix locations, including the corporate office in Lakeland, FL, it’s hard to imagine their resistance holding much longer. It may be worth the added expense simply to remove the negative publicity and potential legal complications that can results if protests continue.

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