Publix and the Business of Atrocities

 “Never let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing.” – George W. Jenkins, the founder of the Florida-based grocery chain Publix

This morning hundreds of men, women, and children came together to begin a two-week long, almost 200 mile, march from Immokalee to Lakeland. These marchers are led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). After the long, two-week trek marchers will find themselves at the headquarters for Publix-a $25-billion, Florida-based company with more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast. They will be calling on Publix to “honor the breakthrough social responsibility partnership for farm labor reform known as the Fair Food Program“.

The Fair Food movement began in February of 2000, when farm workers from Immokalee , accompanied by allies and a 12-ft tall replica of the Statue of Liberty (now displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC), made a two-week long trek from Ft. Myers to the offices of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Orlando.  In the 13 years since that first excursion there have been incredible successes in the effort to achieve “Dignity, Dialogue, and a Fair Wage”. In an effort to push Publix to take action, CIW is returning to its roots with this historic march.

The men, women and even children who pick our tomatoes (Florida is the largest supplier of tomatoes to the nation) make a rate of about 45 to 50 cents for picking 32 pounds of tomatoes — a rate that hasn’t increased substantially since 1978. If they hope to go home at the end of the day with a mere $50 in their pockets they will need to pick approximately two tons of tomatoes. This of course applies to those who actually do get paid.

CIW started in 1993 as a small group in southwest Florida comprised of Haitian, Mayan and Latino agricultural workers. Their passion and resilience is reminiscent of César Chávez. It’s been over half a century since Chávez began his work with the National Farm Workers Association and became a symbol of hope for the Latino community. Yet 50+ years later, CIW is facing similar challenges and thankfully similar successes.

Under the Fair Food Program, participating growers have agreed to the above standards

Under the Fair Food Program, participating growers have agreed to the above standards

CIW has signed Fair Food Program Agreements with 11 major corporations. These corporations include Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and BAMCO. The Fair Food Program agreements include a penny-per-pound premium sent down the supply chain to workers, stipulations on working conditions, and the establishment of a third-party monitoring system to ensure these changes last. The pay increase translates to a mere jump of approximately $15 per family in groceries yet ensures that farm workers can rise out of poverty. This program has resulted in crucial changes. Workers now receive a “Fair Food Premium” in their pay. Sexual harassment is no longer tolerated, and growers provide bathrooms, water and shade structures in rest areas. Tomato pickers are educated on-site about their new rights under the program, and there is a hotline that workers can call to report violations.

With so many big name corporations joining the program, it is confounding to see Publix repeatedly refuse to even sit down for talks with CIW. It has been years of disrespect, rejection, and callousness from the grocery giant who still insists on purchasing their tomatoes from Florida growers who deny access to FFP standards (among other offenses).

“After decades of what Edward R. Murrow called the ‘Harvest of Shame,’ the Fair Food Program is something the Florida tomato industry, something all of us can all be proud of — labor rights advances that are setting the bar for social responsibility in the US produce industry today,” said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW. “But while the changes we are seeing in farmworkers’ lives today are indeed unprecedented, there is still much to be done. With each new corporation that joins, the wage increases and labor reforms grow and deepen, which is why Publix’s decision to turn its back on the FFP is so unconscionable. Its support, which would cost Publix little or nothing, could significantly change the lives of some of the state’s hardest workers, yet the $28 billion company won’t even show farmworkers the respect of granting us a meeting to discuss the Fair Food Program face-to-face.”

Publix’s “Put It In the Price” response to CIW is simply a more eloquent, thought out version of their condescending and flippant comments put forth by Publix PR reps.

We don’t believe “just paying the penny” is the right thing to do —for Publix or our
suppliers. Simply stated, Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound —
or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be —in order to provide product to our
customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their
labor. That is the responsibility of their employer, and we believe all parties would be
better served if appropriate wages were paid by growers to their workers, and we were
charged accordingly. – PIITP Response

Sounds solid on the surface but actively choosing to work solely with farms that abuse/underpay their workers rather than pressure said farms to step up their game or choosing to switch to another provider (much like the 11 corporations named above) is inexcusable. Particularly when you champion yourself as a company that has “earned the respect of our peers and have been consistently recognized because of our values, mission and contributions. Publix also is widely recognized for creating a unique workplace culture based on respecting the dignity, value and employment security of our associates.”  …and if the companies we partner with refuse to do the same we simply look the other way. Problem solved.

Also, to be frank, the argument put forth by Publix is deceptive. The penny will be in the price if Publix joins the program. This is simply a request that Publix not stubbornly choose to engage with partners who exploit their workers and that the corporation live up to its claims of respecting dignity and value.

Sadly, I will not be able to join the CIW for the entire march but on March 17th I will participate in the final 6 miles and will join hundreds of men, women and children at a 4 pm rally at the Publix corporate headquarters in Lakeland.

Will you  join us?

Joining the march is not the only way to support CIW and the farmworkers. Visit here to learn how you can take part in the “March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food”.