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Farm Workers Target McDonald's, Suppliers Over Wages

WASHINGTON - Florida tomato pickers converged on McDonald's Corp.'s flagship Chicago restaurant over the weekend to protest poor working conditions and wages they say have stagnated for 30 years.

The farm hands, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, want a penny-per-pound pay raise from their employers, growers based in and around Immokalee, Florida. And they want Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's to finance the wage hike by paying more for their tomatoes. The company said it is studying the issue.

Tomato pickers earn about $7,500 a year, the workers' coalition said.

In contrast, McDonald's and other fast-food chains served up $135 billion in sales last year, according to industry group the National Restaurant Association.

The sheer size of their market gives fast food companies considerable clout in dealing with suppliers and this, in turn, has made them juicy targets for activism. Unlike these big-spending corporate customers, the mostly migrant farm workers wield little power against their employers: wealthy local farmers and privately held firms that make up the backbone of Florida's strategic tomato industry.

Florida supplies some 90 percent of the nation's domestic fresh tomatoes during winter and 45 percent of all U.S. tomato consumption, said business group the Florida Tomato Council. Immokalee is said to be among the largest and poorest farming areas in America.

The coalition's 3,500-odd worker-members and their supporters from religious and student organizations are targeting McDonald's after waging a four-year campaign that last March succeeded in pressing Taco Bell parent Yum! Brands Inc. to require its suppliers to pay the workers one cent more per pound of tomatoes picked.

As a result, some workers picking tomatoes sold to Taco Bell have seen their wages nearly double.

Other tomato pickers, however, continue to draw roughly the same wage they earned in the mid-1970s: between 1.25 cents and 1.4 cents per pound, the coalition said. That amounts to roughly the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour for mostly seasonal work.

To win the Taco Bell struggle, the Immokalee workers mobilized broad support for a consumer boycott, hunger strike, and marches. They also enlisted socially responsible investors who opened a new front by submitting pro-farm worker proposals at annual meetings of Yum! Brands shareholders.

This time around, the farm workers have not called for a boycott of McDonald's because the firm, which takes pride in several corporate philanthropy initiatives, has acknowledged the workers' situation and has said it will take steps to correct it if an independent study bears out their position.

McDonald's already has embraced ''fair trade'' coffee, offering the farm worker-friendly product at 600-plus restaurants in New England and New York. The Florida tomato pickers want similar consideration, coalition spokesman Lucas Benitez was quoted as saying in news reports.

''Farm workers' inadequate wages will only truly be addressed when McDonald's does for tomato pickers what it is now doing for coffee pickers in its supply chain, pay a fair price so that workers can earn a fair wage,'' said Benitez.

Late last year, McDonald's became the first produce buyer to offer active backing to the nascent Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE), a nonprofit organization aimed at ensuring that growers treat their employees in keeping with law and principles of fairness.

Growers launched the initiative after several of their colleagues were charged or convicted in recent years with modern-day slavery, marked by employment practices including poor wages, physical harassment and violence at the workplace, forced labor, and child labor.

The workers' coalition and other critics have assailed SAFE's credibility, saying employers designed a code of conduct for themselves without consulting the workers they claimed to want to protect.

In particular, SAFE fails to address ''sub-poverty wages,'' said Benitez.

Pressure on McDonald's, he added, is aimed at goading the company to follow Taco Bell's lead in demanding higher wages and employment standards than those embraced by SAFE.

Under the terms of its agreement with the coalition, Yum! Brands insists that suppliers pass on the higher price of tomatoes to their workers. The company requires certification that suppliers abide by labor laws and workplace regulations and also has said it would favor suppliers that exceed legal requirements.

Florida growers have said even a penny-per-pound raise could threaten their competitiveness because it adds up when applied to millions of tomatoes per year. Farm workers' supporters have countered that in the Yum! Brands case, the cost of increased wages was incurred not by agricultural employers but by Taco Bell, which now pays a higher price for the tomatoes.

Now as with the Taco Bell campaign, most organizations supporting the farm workers' struggle are assembled under the umbrella of the Alliance for Fair Food founded by the Presbyterian Church (USA), Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, Student/Farmworker Alliance, and Interfaith Action.

Prominent individuals backing the alliance include former President Jimmy Carter, Grammy Award-winner Bonnie Raitt, actor Jeff Bridges, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, and Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.