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Justice For Only A Penny
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Refusing to help improve the abysmal conditions of the tomato pickers who are vital to the fast-food industry is not enough for Burger King. Now the industry giant has joined a drive to undo agreements by its major competitors to help the pickers.

McDonald's, fearing a boycott, reached an agreement with the pickers' representatives last April. It matched an agreement signed in 2005 after a four-year-long boycott of Taco Bell. That pact covers Taco Bell and the five other franchises owned by Yum Brands -- Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, A& W, Long John Silver's and All America Food restaurants.

The companies agreed to increase by a penny what they had been paying growers per pound of tomatoes, with the understanding that the extra penny would go directly to the pickers. Although that put hardly a dent in the companies' huge profits, it at least came close to providing the pickers a living wage for their back-breaking work. It nearly doubled their previous pay of just a little over one cent per pound picked, a piece rate that hadn't been raised since the 1970s.

Most of the pickers are undocumented Latinos who've had little choice but to accept the conditions imposed on them. They work under the blazing sun in the Immokalee area of southern Florida, usually dawn to dusk, for up to seven days a week, rarely for more than $10,000 a year. They have no paid holidays or vacations, overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, pensions or other benefits, no union rights. Most live in dilapidated trailers or other substandard rental housing.

Some workers are held in virtual slavery by the sometimes physically abusive labor contractors who hire them for the tomato growers. The contractors 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.

It would cost Burger King a quarter-million dollars at most to grant the one-cent increase. But instead, the company has joined with leaders of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90 percent of the state's growers, to launch what the AFL-CIO notes as "an aggressive assault" on the McDonald's and Yum Brands agreements.

The Growers Exchange has threatened to fine growers $100,000 for accepting the extra penny per pound picked from the companies and passing it on to pickers as the agreements require. The Exchange claimed that involves a surcharge which violates "federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering." Exchange Vice President Reggie Brown called it "pretty much near un-American."

Fast-food companies had long argued that the responsibility for improving the tomato pickers' conditions rested solely with growers, while nevertheless steadily pressing growers to keep their prices and labor costs as low as possible.

But now that boycott pressures have forced two of the industry's leaders to back off from that position, Burger King -- and its attempt to undo the agreements made by the two companies -- is the major target of the formidable Coalition of Immokalee Workers that won the agreements from McDonald's and Yum Brands.

The coalition of workers, student and labor activists, religious and political leaders and others has been effectively waging the campaign in behalf of the tomato pickers for several years at rallies and demonstrations and on picket lines throughout the country.

It may take awhile, but the odds are that Burger King, perhaps prodded by a new boycott, will finally be forced to help rather than hinder the drive to bring economic justice to a group of the nation's most needy and exploited workers.

Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister