Labor - And A Whole Lot More

A Penny More for a Decent Life
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Taco Bell finally did it. Now it's time for McDonald's to join the drive to guarantee decent pay and working conditions to the impoverished tomato pickers whose back-breaking work is essential to the hugely profitable fast-food industry.

There are 15,000 pickers, working in the Immokalee area of southern Florida where more than half of the country's tomatoes are grown. The workers, mostly undocumented Latinos, have had little choice but to accept the truly miserable conditions imposed on them.

They work in open-air sweatshops, usually dawn to dusk, for up to seven days a week, rarely for more than $7,500 a year. They have no paid holidays or overtime pay, no health insurance, sick leave, pensions or other benefits, no union rights. Most live in dilapidated trailers or other substandard rental housing.

"They treat us like machines," says Guatemalan immigrant Rolando Sales, who picks thousands of pounds of tomatoes daily, as do many other pickers. "When we can't work anymore, they throw us away. They make millions in profits, while we live in poverty."

Some workers are held in virtual slavery by the sometimes physically abusive labor contractors who hire them for growers. They make deductions from the workers' wages for transportation, food, housing and other services that can force them to turn over their entire paychecks and continue working against their will until the debts to the contractors are paid off.

Pressures from animal rights activists have led most fast-food chains to insist on humane treatment for the farm animals that provide their main ingredients. But only Taco Bell and the others owned by Yum Brands - Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, A&W, Long John Silver's and All America Food restaurants - have demanded that the farm workers employed by their suppliers also be treated humanely.

It took years of hard work by a coalition of workers, student and labor activists, religious leaders and others to win that agreement and the significant improvements in pay and working conditions that resulted from it. The victory last year came largely from a four-year-long boycott against Taco Bell, waged on the correct assumption that its agreement would lead the other Yum Brands restaurants to follow suit.

Taco Bell and the others agreed to increase by a penny what they had been paying growers per pound for tomatoes, with the understanding that the extra penny would go directly to workers. That nearly doubled their pay of just a little over one cent per pound picked, a piece rate that hadn't been increased since the 1970s. That added as much as $7,000 a year to the average worker's pay - enough to finally provide tomato harvesters a living wage.

What's more, the coalition won the right to monitor the payment and treatment of workers, investigate their complaints of poor treatment and join with them to confer with growers on improving working conditions. Growers who continue to abuse workers risk having the fast-food chains quit buying tomatoes from them.

The coalition is now seeking a similar agreement from McDonald's, anticipating that an agreement with that giant chain would lead to agreements with the industry's other holdouts and perhaps even with major supermarket chains. The coalition hasn't called for a boycott of McDonald's, but that remains a strong possibility as long as the chain continues its refusal to even meet with coalition members.

McDonald's says responsibility for improving working conditions must rest primarily with growers. But growers have adamantly refused to act on their own, in part because McDonald's and other chains have pressured them to keep their prices and labor costs as low as possible.

Certainly the coalition will use the same basic tactics against McDonald's that won over Taco Bell. It will again rely heavily on students and other young people, the fast-food chains' main sales targets, to deliver the message at rallies and demonstrations and on picket lines nationwide.

Important backing also is certain to come again from former President Jimmy Carter and other prominent political figures, the AFL-CIO, National Council of Churches and other influential organizations.

As before, however, it's fast-food customers who'll play the decisive role. Regardless of whether the coalition calls a boycott, McDonald's customers can exert great pressure by warning the chain that they'll continue buying their burgers elsewhere unless - and until - McDonald's grants the tomato pickers' demands for decent treatment.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister