It has made the Coalition of Immokalee Workers the group representing the farm workers who pick tomatoes that Taco Bell uses, workers who claim they deserve better wages and working conditions feel they are not alone and that they have support from the church.
And the boycott has helped bring Yum!, the parent corporation of Taco Bell, to the table for conversation.
Gary Cook, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, summarized the impact of the nearly two-year-old boycott for the executive committee of the General Assembly Council at the council’s meeting May 7-8 in Louisville. It’s been nearly two years since the General Assembly in Columbus approved the boycott, after considerable debate.
Noelle Damico, a minister who is assigned to work half-time on the boycott for the PC(USA), said in a written report that “I can testify that the boycott and the accompanying praying, letter writing and protesting have made a tremendous difference. The active participation of congregations and people of all ages has sent a strong signal to Yum! that mainstream customers want ‘fair’ food.”
The Immokalee workers are among the most exploited workers in the country, partly because of the sense of isolation they feel, Cook told the executive committee. Damico’s report states that the workers receive 40 to 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick a rate of pay that hasn’t changed for more than 25 years and earn an average of $7,500 a year. In the past five years, three cases of “debt bondage slavery in the tomato field” have been prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department in which convictions were obtained and crew leaders sentenced to prison terms, the report states.
Some may question the use of the term “slavery,” wondering if that’s appropriate, “but it really is,” Curtis Kearns, director of the PC(USA)’s National Ministries Division, told the committee. Kearns who has visited the workers in Florida along with PC(USA) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick said there have been instances of both economic and sexual slavery, and “it is a whole world, folks, that is hard to conceive of.”
There is no way to tell, Cook told the committee, how many Presbyterians are still eating at Taco Bell and how many have decided not to. When the boycott was proposed, in an overture from Tampa Bay Presbytery, some people wondered whether it might put out of work Taco Bell employees in local stores or hurt Taco Bell franchise owners. “The answer to all of these questions has been `No,’ ” Cook told the executive committee.
A boycott in today’s economy has more to do with corporate image than sales, Cook said and the impact of this boycott is measured, he said, in the way that Yum! has responded to public perceptions of its image.
Over the past two years, Immokalee farm workers have marched in protest holding rallies drawing crowds of about 300 people at Yum!’s corporate headquarters in Louisville and about 2,000 people at Taco Bell’s offices in Irvine, Calif. The farm workers on that “Truth Tour,” held in February and March, wore new shoes provided by Presbyterian churches, Cook said.
At least one Presbyterian youth group has made a mission trip to visit the farm workers in Florida, he said. And Damico’s report said that Presbyterians who hold stock in Yum! holdings “were instrumental in supporting a resolution that called upon the company to report comprehensively on labor conditions throughout their supply chain. It garnered an historic 43 percent of shareholder votes.”
Over the past two years, “this has grown to be a partnership with a group of people who are basically invisible in this country and who have grown visible to the church,” Cook told the committee.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of Churches and, just this past week, the United Methodist Church, have voted to support the boycott. Three members of the Immokalee Workers were awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work on the boycott.
And Yum! officials have participated in what Damico’s report described as “two high-level meetings,” one in May 2003 and one in April 2004, with representatives of the Immokalee workers. “Those discussions are ongoing,” Cook told the executive committee. “Unfortunately that is the only adjective they will let me use.”