Members of Congress, AFL-CIO, RFK Center Back Petition Drive for Florida Farm Workers

U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney,and RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights Director Monika Kalra Varma joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at a press conference to support a nationwide petition drive on behalf of Florida farm workers. Senator Sanders said: "As someone who represents Vermont, the first state in the United States to outlaw slave

WASHINGTON, March 13 - U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) as well as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, RFK Center Director Monika Kalra Varma today joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at a press conference to support a nationwide petition drive on behalf of Florida farm workers.

"Tomato pickers in Florida are working twelve hours days in terrible conditions for substandard wages and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange refuse to admit there is any problem," said Durbin. "Senator Sanders and I disagree. And in our meeting with the Growers Exchange Tuesday night, we made it very clear that we going to stand up for the tomato pickers. The Growers Exchange refused to even consider any change in compensation or living conditions."

Sanders said: "As someone who represents Vermont, the first state in the United States to outlaw slavery, it is almost incomprehensible to me that we are standing here today -- at the beginning of the 21st century -- holding a press conference to bring attention to the fact that workers in the tomato fields of Florida are working in desperate conditions, conditions that in some cases are so extreme that even the Bush Administration has brought slavery charges. This is a disgrace and an outrage that cannot be allowed to continue.

"When we talk about the race to the bottom in America, it is clear the tomato pickers in Immokalee are the bottom. They are workers who are ruthlessly exploited and have no rights. This is a situation that should not continue in America and should be changed."

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has launched the petition drive to insist that the food industry improve wages and working conditions for tomato pickers. Recent reports suggest that their pay has not increased in the past two decades and that living conditions of local workers are among the worst in the agriculture industry. Senator Sanders visited Florida in January to investigate conditions on tomato farms. While he was there, a federal grand jury indicted six people for enslaving farm workers. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee tentatively scheduled a hearing in mid-April on working conditions on the farms.

Senators Durbin and Sanders also sent letters today, along with Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), to seven of the largest grocery and food service companies urging them to participate in a proposed initiative to increase the per bushel piece rate that tomato workers in Immokalee, Florida are paid. Today's letter was sent to Winn Dixie, Kroger, Publix, Safeway, SUPERVALU, SYSCO, US Food Service, and Wal-Mart.

In today's letter, the Senators noted "Both McDonald's Corporation and Yum! Brands have taken important steps to provide the region's farm workers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes harvested. Such an increase would have little impact on the bottom line of tomato purchasers but would have a meaningful impact on the lives of these workers."

The piece rate paid to workers has not changed in the past 25 years and remains approximately 40 cents per 32 pound bucket of tomatoes picked. Because tomatoes can't be picked year round and can't be picked in certain weather conditions, a high earning picker may earn at most about $15,000 per year. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange recently announced that on average, workers earn about $12 per hour, a highly dubious assertion that assumes full employment year round.

McDonald's Corp. and Yum Brands, the owner of Taco Bell, have worked with the coalition to significantly improve workers' wages. The program was recently halted by the Florida Tomato Growers who threatened to sue their member growers $100,000 if they participate in the penny per pound program. In addition, Burger King refuses to participate in the program.

Wednesday afternoon, Durbin and Sanders met with Reggie Brown, Executive Vice President of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, in Senator Durbin's Capitol office. In the meeting, they offered to work with the Growers Exchange to find a legal, practical way to get an extra penny per pound to the workers. The Growers would not acknowledge the problem at hand and refused to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.

To listen to the entire press conference, click here.

The letter is posted below:

March 13, 2008

Mr. H. Lee Scott, Jr.
Chief Executive Officer
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
702 Southwest 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716

Dear Mr. Scott:

We are writing to ask Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to consider participating in a proposed initiative to increase the piece rate paid to tomato workers. Recent reports suggest that the per bushel piece rate that farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, are paid has not increased in the past two decades. Reports also indicate that slavery cases have been successfully prosecuted against individuals in the region's tomato industry. In addition, many of us have learned firsthand that living conditions of local workers are among the worst in the agriculture industry.

In light of these concerns, we support recent industry actions to increase the piece rate paid to these workers. Both McDonald's Corporation and Yum! Brands have taken important steps to provide the region's farm workers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes harvested. Such an increase would have little impact on the bottom line of tomato purchasers but would have a meaningful impact on the lives of these workers.

Unfortunately, these two voluntary agreements have been suspended due to actions taken by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the trade association that represents the region's growers. The trade association has threatened their members with a $100,000 fine per infraction should they participate in such an agreement.

While the Growers Exchange has raised legal objections to the program, after carefully reviewing these objections, we have concluded they do not hold up to even minimal scrutiny. The Exchange's administrative objections are similarly misplaced. Tomato growers would incur no direct or administrative costs by participating in the program. Furthermore, the experiences of McDonald's Corporation and Yum! Brands in setting up appropriate mechanisms to pay workers indicate that the logistical challenges of the program are easily addressed.

To date, the penny per pound campaign has focused its efforts on large fast food restaurants which together purchase less than five percent of the tomatoes from Immokalee. Grocers and food service companies buy a far greater share of the region's tomatoes. We believe that companies such as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. are better positioned to negotiate with the region's growers and improve the remuneration of these workers should an agreement be reached.

It is our hope that a comprehensive agreement can be reached that will satisfy the region's workers, growers, and buyers. We respectfully request that you inform us whether you would consider entering into negotiation for such an agreement within ten days. Thank your for your prompt attention to this matter.


Sincerely,




______________________ ______________________
Richard J Durbin Bernie Sanders
United States Senator United States Senator




______________________ ______________________ Sherrod Brown Edward M. Kennedy
United States Senator United States Senator