Immokalee workers raise stakes (Ft. Myers News Press)

Campaign for higher tomato prices launched

By Amy Bennett Williams

They've been asking for years but haven't gotten what they want.

So the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is bringing out its big guns: a high-profile, multi-faceted national campaign and the threat of a boycott designed to persuade Burger King to pay a penny more a pound for tomatoes and "eliminate slavery and human rights abuses from Florida's fields."

This week, coalition members are fanning out across the country to gather support for the effort, which is tied to the 200th anniversary of the U.S. ban on the importation of slaves.

This approach has worked for the grassroots coalition in the past. In 2005, after national protests, petitions and hunger strikes, Yum! Brands, Taco Bell's parent company, agreed to the increase. McDonald's signed on in 2007.

But Burger King has refused to agree to the raise, prompting Senate labor committee member Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to call for Senate hearings on farm conditions, tentatively scheduled for next month.

After visiting Immokalee tomato workers in January, Sanders called their living conditions "among the worst in the agriculture industry." His visit came the day after a federal grand jury in Fort Myers released a 17-count indictment alleging six people enslaved undocumented farmworkers from Guatemala and Mexico by taking their identification, forcing them to work without pay, creating debts they couldn't repay and beating them if they wanted to leave.

The Coalition is asking supporters to sign a petition calling on Burger King to:

"1. Pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes and ensure that the increase is passed on to tomato pickers in the form of increased wages; and

"2. Work with the CIW to establish and enforce a human rights-based code of conduct, including zero tolerance for forced labor, to ensure fair and safe working conditions."

So far, the petition is being well received throughout the country, said coalition member Greg Asbed. The CIW plans to deliver the petitions to Burger King's Miami headquarters this spring.

Burger King supports the effort, said Keva Silversmith, the company's director of external communications.

"We've reviewed the petition and hope to have the opportunity to sign it ourselves," he said. "We're totally for improving labor conditions (and) our door absolutely remains open to the CIW. We call on them to sit down with us and work out something meaningful on behalf of the farm workers," he said.

But Silversmith said not the proposed penny-per-pound increase, which won't produce change.

Instead, he said the CIW should "stop attacking Burger King and use that energy to do something productive for the farm workers."

The campaign is close to the heart of Florida Gulf Coast University student Angela Cisneros.

"My parents used to be farmworkers in Immokalee," said the 24-year-old political science major, "and I see the Coalition is actually fighting for wages, to help with the problems workers face."

Cisneros and fellow students are making a banner for the student union depicting the FGCU eagle, the school's mascot; each of its feathers will be a petition signature.

Students at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers are getting involved, as is St. Columbkille Catholic Church in south Fort Myers.

"We're getting signatures collected this weekend," said parishioner Chris McBride. "It's what we're called to do - to help our brothers and sisters."