Fasting For One More Penny Per Pound

Outside of the Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Florida over 50 members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are beginning the fourth day of their six-day fast to protest Florida-based supermarket-chain Publix. For some farm workers this isn't their first hunger strike to improve working conditions. The Coalition has a history of public demonstration and fasting, including a 30-day fast that six of their members undertook in 1997. That hunger strike helped form the Fair Food Agreement; this strike hopes to move Publix to sign it.

The Fair Food Agreement calls for increased worker safety education, a guarantee that workers' hours will be recorded, and a raise in wages from $50 to $80 a day, which would cost buyers one more penny per pound of tomatoes. The CIW has been working on a grassroots level to improve the conditions of Florida's tomato pickers for more than a decade and they have succeed in getting major fast food chains like McDonald's and Burger King to sign their agreement. But supermarkets have proven to be more difficult converts. To date Whole Foods and Trader Joe's (as of this month) are the only supermarket chains to sign on.

With the recent triumph of Trader Joe's behind them, CIW has turned its attention to Publix, which operates over 700 stores in Florida and over 1,000 in the Southeast. On their website the CIW quotes member Gerado Reyes saying, "By turning its back on the Fair Food Program, Publix has moved from passively profiting from farmworker poverty to affirmatively perpetuating it. This is an amoral and fundamentally indefensible choice. As workers we cannot allow that choice to stand. And that is why we will be going without food."

Publicists from Publix did not return calls, but they have a prepared statement available on their website specifically addressing the CIW situation. In respone to the one more penny per pound issue Publix writes, "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 the goods to our customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer."

Long-time chronicler of the CIW's mission and author of Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook, flew to Lakeland on Tuesday to support the fasters. He noted that spirits were high despite an unfortunately strong wind. "People are joking that Publix sent the wind," says Estabrook.

The Coalition has come prepared with tents to provide shade, live entertainment and inspirational speakers. Strikers hold signs that read, "I go hungry today, so my children won't have to tomorrow" that garner honks from drivers passing by. But so far, there's been no sign of Publix representatives, with the exception of security guards who have forced protestors to take down a tent shade claiming it was too large.

On Saturday, March 10 members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance will walk three miles from a Publix location to join the strikers at the headquarters and break the fast. Until then, the CIW will continue their round-the-clock protest outside of Publix's Lakeland offices.

CIW members have optimistically placed chairs on the protest grounds ready to receive Publix employees if and when they want to engage in a dialogue. "I don't think anyone's expecting those chairs to be filled. Then again, I would have said the same thing about Trader Joe's a couple of months ago. They were just as recalcitrant," says Estabrook.