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Farmworker & Student Victory Over Burger King

Marc Rodrigues
Date Published: 

The coalition of immokalee workers (CIW) scored yet another unlikely victory this past May as Burger King, like Yum Brands (owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and others) and McDonald’s before it, agreed to partner with the CIW to improve tomato harvesters’ wages and working conditions. Despite a dirty counter-campaign by Burger King, the CIW and key allies – including the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) – persevered in what could mark a watershed moment in the Campaign for Fair Food that started with the launch of the Taco Bell boycott in 2001. The movement that grew out of a sleepy, once invisible farmworker town in southwest Florida stands poised to claim new victories and confront new challenges.

The year-long Burger King (BK) struggle reads like a corporate play book of how not to respond to worker and consumer organizing. BK first rejected farmworkers’ demands, instead offering to “retrain” them to work in its restaurants – begging the question of who would then pick its tomatoes. When that ridiculous PR stunt failed, the company then resorted to publicly questioning the integrity of the CIW and its agreements with Yum Brands and McDonald’s. BK then found an ally of convenience in the backward Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a lobbying organization for the growers – or employers – and piggybacked on that group’s entrenched resistance to seeing the Yum and McDonald’s agreements fully implemented.

As the campaign intensified, a trail of anonymous online comments referring to the CIW as “bloodsuckers” and “the lowest form of life” looking to “reap millions” from “duped supporters” was traced directly to a company Vice President, who actually used his own daughter’s online screen name to make some of the posts, usually appended to articles or videos mentioning the CIW. The corporation also hired the private security firm Diplomatic Tactical Services, whose twenty-something president (whose application for an investigator’s license had been rejected by the state of Florida) posed as a student in order to infiltrate and spy on the SFA. The security firm lists “covert surveillance” and “placing operatives in the ranks” of target groups among its specialties. John Chidsey, BK’s CEO, admitted to knowing of his company’s (now severed) relationship with the firm.

Ideological jiu-jitsu

Perhaps BK thought that thumbing its nose at farmworkers was just another way to boost its image but they soon came to realize that playing with people’s lives to construct a brand isn’t just an unsound business practice, it’s likely to backfire. In a graceful sweep of ideological jiu-jitsu, the CIW and SFA were able to use BK’s own behavior against it. The corporation relented under the growing pressure and controversy, and the CEO actually issued an apology for his company’s attacks on the CIW.

What lessons can be learned from the successful BK campaign? For one, it reminds us that seemingly invincible institutions are made up of individual people, and people make mistakes. It wasn’t especially difficult for CIW and SFA members to detect patterns and see that something fishy was afoot. The anonymous attack postings by the Vice President repeated, almost verbatim, comments that he and the CEO had made, recorded and with witnesses just weeks or months before; the true identity of the president of Diplomatic Tactical Services was arrived at after a hunch and some simple web searching. Sometimes, even people with all the resources in the world slip up. Movements must then take advantage of those miscues and finely craft their response with the media, constituents, and allies.

After SFA found out it was the subject of an espionage and infiltration attempt, they took basic precautions, but didn’t get bogged down in paranoia or obsessed with security culture. The most important thing to organizers with the CIW and SFA, through all the attacks and controversy, was to simply keep organizing. BK’s pattern of immoral and dishonest behavior in response to the CIW only grew more desperate – and thus, unsustainable. The more persistent action and pressure were brought to bear by the CIW and its allies.

Peaks and valleys

Maybe this approach comes from a certain confidence stemming from the previous two major victories. Maybe it comes from the CIW’s deep understanding of the history of social change and the many peaks and valleys on the long road to justice. For example, the CIW takes many of its cues from the abolitionist and civil rights movements. Its 85,000-signature-strong petition to BK last spring calling for an end to farmworker exploitation and conditions of actual modern-day slavery that still surface in Florida agriculture was directly linked to the bicentennial of the US ban on the importation of slaves – one of a shamefully small handful of public acknowledgements of this milestone.

Or maybe it comes from the two greatest strengths this movement has. First, its base in and leadership by the farmworker community, and the weapon of the truth of what it is to live and work as a farmworker. Second, the CIW’s ability to attract and build alliances with a broad array of communities. Students and youth organizing through the SFA have been particularly important to the overall success of the Campaign for Fair Food, approaching the work through an understanding of collective liberation and refusing to be willing accomplices of an industry that depends on – more than simply their cash –young people’s unquestioning loyalty and obedience.

Students, rather than dictating to farmworkers what strategy they should pursue, organize autonomously on their campuses and in their own communities, while taking leadership from and remaining accountable to workers in Immokalee. The CIW’s campaign victories are victories for all – whether by improving conditions in the fields or by holding transnational corporate power accountable, not to mention developing a new generation of young organizers in the process. Through their work, the CIW and SFA bring farmworkers and youth together in an exchange of experience and knowledge that makes the connections between opposite ends of corporate supply chains and moves people to take action.

Monumental victories

Of course, the campaign continues, and despite three monumental victories, challenges remain. Other corporations that still profit from the misery of Florida farmworkers – be they Chipotle with its claims to “changing the way America grows and gathers its food” or Subway and Wal-Mart, whose sheer tomato purchasing volumes are unmatched, continue to perpetuate farmworker exploitation. In addition, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange maintains its opposition, threatening its member tomato growers with stiff consequences should they participate in any agreements involving the CIW and the fast-food corporations, thus delaying some much-needed economic relief from reaching the pockets of farmworkers.

The CIW, SFA, and their allies, therefore, can’t afford to get complacent. But these new challenges come as the movement grows and attracts more allies, who in turn make the movement stronger in the face of those challenges.

Eight years of this campaign, and the public commitment of three of the largest fast-food companies in the world to the principles of fair food, have built a legacy. Other corporations that stand in the way of progress can no longer claim ignorance of the human rights crisis in the fields of Florida that provide the country with so much of its fresh fruits and vegetables, nor can they say that the solution is not possible. Until fair wages and human rights reign in those fields, farmworkers and students will continue to walk, and struggle, together.

Marc Rodrigues is co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance.