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Taco Bell Boycott Victory—A Model of Strategic Organizing : An interview with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

David Solnit
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a community-based worker organization. Their members are largely Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. They recently won a huge victory in their national boycott of Taco Bell this March 2005 when amidst growing pressure from students, churches and communities throughout the country, Taco Bell agreed to meet all their demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain.

The March 8, 2005 Taco Bell boycott victory of Immokalee farmworkers and their allies against the biggest fast food corporation on the planet is one of the most significant victories for social movements in the United States in recent history. The victory concretely improves the lives and dignity of Florida’s low wage farmworkers.

It is also a victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) grassroots, horizontal, innovative, people-power-based organizing model. It is vital for those of us from labor, anti-war, community and global justice struggles to learn from their winning model of organizing.

The victory comes at time when the AFL-CIO is locked in a power struggle between two factions of top-down leaders, the antiwar movement is struggling to articulate a strategy to stop the Iraq war and occupation and many activists are still under the Karl Roves spell from the November 2, 2004 election, which created the illusion that the majority of the public supports policies of empire and right wing fundamentalism.

I have had the opportunity to work as an ally of CIW over the last four years, both as part of a Bay Area support group and as a puppeteer who helped to create images and CIW’S popular theater pieces, The Marriage of Queen Cheap and King Taco Bell and La Historia De Victoria (at the victory rally in St Louis in March). CIW’s organizing and spirit has been an incredible inspiration and organizing model to me. A couple years ago I asked CIW to write about how they organized for the organizing and inspiration manual I edited, Globalize Liberation. At the time they wrote, “The Taco Bell boycott has the potential to become a landmark campaign for the future of farm worker organizing….it could open up organizing possibilities that have for decades been mired in a tired stalemate…”

CIW, along with many other community based organizations and non-traditional worker organizations are the new face of the global justice movement. Together with the Miami Workers Center and Power University, CIW led a three-day march to Miami against the failed Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2003. This March they hosted the “Our World, Our Rights” Conference on Global Justice in Louisville, KY. CIW’s mobilizations and convergences have brought together many of the same forces that came together in Seattle and DC in ‘99 and 2000, but with community and immigrant groups in the lead.

I asked CIW workers – many of whom responded after picking watermelons this May – to respond to a few questions about how they organize in the wake of their victory. Here are their responses:

SOLNIT: Can you describe what was won on March 8, 2005 and what the significance of the Taco Bell victory is to CIW, to other immigrant and farm worker groups and other social change movements?

CIW: It really is unprecedented. Taco Bell agreed to meet all of our demands. Taco Bell is going to pay one more penny per pound of tomatoes that they buy from Florida tomato growers with a contractual agreement that this penny be passed on to the workers. They pledged to buy tomatoes ONLY from companies that agree to pass on the penny.

A penny per pound might not seem like much, but today a farm worker receives 40 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. Through this agreement, the piece rate for tomatoes picked for Taco Bell would increase to around 72 cents per bucket. That almost doubles a workers’ wages if they are picking tomatoes that will go to Taco Bell.

It also ensures that workers’ rights are being protected in the fields where Taco Bell’s tomatoes are picked. Concretely this means that if there’s a complaint about a human rights violation from any worker in a company that supplies Taco Bell, then Taco Bell and the CIW will investigate the case and if evidence is found that a violation occurred then Taco Bell would stop buying tomatoes from this company. Taco Bell and Yum Brands have pledged zero tolerance for modern-day slavery and other workplace abuses prohibited by law.

SOLNIT: Can you explain the CIW slogan “Consciousness plus Commitment equals Change”?

CIW:A base of informed and conscious workers is the foundation for all the work we do. As a community we start by reflecting on the situation that we face as workers and then come up with what action is necessary to make the change we seek.

As one of our members said, “One who does not analyze continues to be a slave.

By looking at the roots of the agricultural industry’s problem, we were able to come up with a strategy to change the problems that we face in our community. We do this through popular education: flyers, drawings, theater, videos, weekly meetings, and visits to the camps. We draw on the innate leader that exists in every worker.

From this consciousness comes the commitment of individuals to participate in the struggle. Workers commit to taking part in actions, to missing days and weeks of work and pay, to going on hunger strikes, to marching endless miles. It is this consciousness and commitment that have led us to the changes that we’ve been able to create in our community.

But creating consciousness in the worker community is just one part of our work. Through the boycott we were also able to build a base of conscious and responsible consumers who will now make more conscious and responsible choices whenever they go out to eat or to shop. Now they’ll think about the people behind the products they are consuming.

SOLNIT: Can you talk about how and why CIW builds alliances and what role they played in the Taco Bell victory?

CIW:All of our allies were very important in achieving this victory. With so many diverse groups coming together from faith, student, youth, immigrant, worker, and activist communities we were able to show that this was not just a problem facing farm workers, and not just a bunch of rowdy students wanting to cause a stir on their campuses, but rather a problem that needs to be addressed by the whole of our society. Each group of allies contributed something important and different to the campaign.

The students used their power as Taco Bell’s target market, and their power on their campuses to let Taco Bell and Yum Brands know that human rights is an issue important to them. Spearheading the “Boot the Bell” campaign, students blocked or removed Taco Bell restaurants and products from 22 campuses. Students even formed their own network, the Student Farmworker Alliance, to coordinate their efforts.

Our religious allies organized in their own way too, spreading the boycott congregation by congregation and church by church, but also at the national level by getting denominations to sign on and resolve to support through their national bodies.

Each group worked autonomously in a de-centralized way, but always came back to the center, to the workers, to plan and strategize together.

Our actions were in a way unique, bringing together all of these diverse sectors of society who don’t always get together. You would see anarchists and Presbyterians in the crowd, famous musicians and local hometown musical groups sharing the stage, and leaders of community organizations together with leaders of national unions. All of these groups were together fighting for the same thing – to make a multi-national corporation take responsibility for the sub-poverty wages and inhumane working conditions in its supply chain and to modernize the way the US agricultural industry treats its workers.

SOLNIT:How did CIW make one of the most invisible communities in the US become one of the most connected struggles, and a space which brought together many movements, networks and communities? Can you describe CIW’s network organizing and the role networks played in winning the boycott?

CIW: Before we started the boycott, Immokalee was an invisible place not appearing on this country’s cognitive map and in many cases even its physical maps. Even residents of neighboring Naples didn’t know about the community and the problems located at the end of Immokalee Road.

At the beginning of our struggle we were trying to get our voices heard just in the local community, and then at the state level. But when we came to understand that the root of our problem was located at a much higher level we knew would have to get our voices heard all across the nation.

Our networks of allies who supported the boycott in some ways formed themselves. When we announced a national boycott of Taco Bell on April 1, 2001 we had no idea that this movement would grow as fast or as far and as wide as it would.

We knew that we needed to get the word out about the conditions in Florida’s fields to people all across the country, and so began to plan a cross-country tour. Through that process we came into contact with people all across the country who were already concerned with the issues of globalization, sweatshops, human rights, social justice, immigrant workers, etc. And in the different communities where the tour would pass we gave the different groups who were working on these different issues an opportunity to get together to plan for a visit from a hundred farmworkers from Florida. When we went to these groups we weren’t asking them to support our work or our campaign, we were asking them to become our allies and to take on the campaign as their own.

Our network spread and grew like wildfire. And suddenly wherever we would go and mention that we were from Immokalee, it would illicit the reaction “oh, the tomato pickers” or “ yo no quiero Taco Bell.”

SOLNIT: Movements increasingly see struggles as a “battle of the story” between powerholders and social change movements. How did CIW tell its story and frame its struggle to win against Taco Bell?

CIW: In the battle of stories as one of our compañeros said, “Our best weapon is the truth.”

So, the story we told was the truth, our truth, the truth of what our lives as tomato pickers are like. We told about how we start every day at 4:30 am by preparing lunch and going out to the central parking lot in town to look for work. Where if one is lucky enough to find work, you work long hours under the hot sun making the same wage that tomato pickers made in 1978 – that is 40-45 cents per 32 pound bucket, which means that in order to make $50 in a day you have to pick 2 tons of tomatoes. We told the story of how in addition to earning sub-poverty wages, a worker receives no benefits of any kind – no sick leave, no vacation, no holidays, no health insurance, and no right to organize.

We also told about the most extreme abuses that are happening today in the agricultural industry – modern-day slavery. We would tell about how the CIW had uncovered, investigated, and assisted with the prosecution of five cases of slavery in the fields in the past few years.

When we asked Taco Bell if they could prove that their tomatoes were free from slave labor, they couldn’t give us an answer. By telling our story we were able to tattoo slavery on their logo. That’s not something a corporation whose profits are based on image wants. In a recent widely circulated AP article on the boycott win, the spokesperson for Taco Bell was quoted saying, “We don’t like to see even one person out there saying anything negative about our brand… Certainly, we were anxious to put an end to that.”

Now with 100% transparency and an enforceable zero-tolerance policy against slavery, Taco Bell can assure their consumers that their tomato supply chain is free from slave labor and that the working conditions in their supply chain are fair.

SOLNIT: CIW’s banner says: “We are All Leaders.” What does this mean and how does CIW develop leadership?

CIW: That’s one of the main challenges of our organization. Every season our members come and go. New workers come to town. That’s the nature of the agricultural industry. But we know that without an informed and conscious group of workers and members our struggle won’t progress. We must always work to build consciousness in the whole worker population in Immokalee. We use popular education to grow new leaders every year. We use flyers, drawings, videos, and visits to the camps. And we start fresh every season when the workers return.

What is a challenge is also an asset to our organizing. We can never stop organizing, never leave popular education behind, and never stop coming up with new ideas.

The idea to take on the fast food world came from workers. The idea to do a boycott and to focus on Taco Bell came from workers. Workers themselves come up with the ideas on how to make the impact necessary to make the changes we need. Workers drive the direction of the campaign. And, of course, workers are telling our stories and speaking from our own experiences, both within the worker community in Immokalee and to the media and presentations all across the country.

SOLNIT: The Taco Bell Boycott is an incredible model of a campaign with along-the-way goals leading up to the boycott victory. Why was it important to organize as a campaign and set shorter-term goals instead of organizing ongoing actions or only focusing on the long-term goal?

CIW: It’s important because when you make goals for yourself that you can reach in a certain amount of time then you don’t lose your enthusiasm or drive to get to the ultimate goal. When you see the endorsements coming in from across the country, from mainline denominations, from politicians, from celebrities, and you see more and more students signing on to your campaign and kicking Taco Bell’s off their campuses, you feel stronger and more hopeful. And for those living in the struggle they can see that there’s something bigger out there to hope for that is also achievable – like the agreement that we made with Taco Bell.

SOLNIT: What is the role of art and culture in the campaign?

CIW: The corporations who we are fighting have multi-million dollar advertising budgets, we the farmworkers from a small and resource poor community don’t have the same kind of access to the media. We have to be creative about communicating our story.

Art, images, and theater played a very important role. We were able to show through their use what the reality of our lives is really like. We were able to catch people’s attention by making our marches and protests colorful and fun. And through the images and signs we were able to more effectively communicate our message to anyone who might have driven by or seen us on the news or in the newspapers.

SOLNIT: How does CIW’s struggle around specific conditions and demands contribute to building “a better world that is possible”?

CIW: By focusing our struggle on the demand that multi national corporations pay attention to human rights for the first time, we are changing the way they do business. In some small ways we are also changing their mentalities, especially about the responsibility of taking care of the people who work on the farms that produce their products.

For the first time ever we were able to open a door that was previously thought to be impassable. And we’ve opened it not just for farmworkers but also for all of the workers that make up these corporations.

SOLNIT: What’s the next step for CIW and how can people help?

CIW: Until the day comes when a worker can afford to support his or her family in a dignified way, until a worker is paid a fair day’s wages for a fair days work, until our children have the same opportunities for education and a better life than we had, until the agriculture industry and the major corporations who buy from them recognize us as the human beings that we are and as an important part of their business, we’ll be here and we’ll continue to fight.

The victory at Taco Bell sets a precedent for the rest of the fast food industry. It’s like when man went to the moon. They said that it couldn’t be done and that they were crazy to even try. When the first man landed on the moon he took the first steps and planted his flag there. We’ve done the same thing with the fast food industry. We’ve taken our first steps and planted our flag, but now there’s a whole big universe out there in front of us. Right now we’re exploring to see which direction we want to go.

One thing we know is that Taco Bell is not the only fast food corporation that buys tomatoes from Florida. Now is an opportune moment for the rest of the fast food industry to take advantage of this movement and to join Taco Bell in working with the CIW to improve the working conditions and wages of the workers who pick their tomatoes.

Here are a couple of things people can do:

1) Write letters to McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway urging them to work with the CIW and to adopt socially responsible purchasing practices and to make human rights a priority in how they do business.

2) Stay tuned for upcoming actions: Visit our website – – and join our listserve for actions and updates in our campaign to make fast food fair food.


David Solnit is a direct action organizer, puppeteer, and the editor of Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World. He is currently involved in strategy trainings and organizing against the Iraq war.