Florida Farmworkers to Protest Publix With Six Day Fast

Florida farm laborers protest outside of a Tampa Publix in March, 2011. (Photo: Fritz Meyer)

Farmworkers, community members, and religious leaders in Lakeland, Florida will be holding a six-day fast next week to demand fair working conditions from supermarket giant Publix.

Some 50 laborers and their allies will begin the fast on Monday, March 5 on the grounds of Publix's headquarters in protest of the corporation's refusal to participate in the Fair Food Program – a deal that would guarantee the field laborers reasonable wages.

Launched in 2001 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Fair Food Program asks food retailers and restaurant chains to, among other stipulations, pay a penny-per-pound surcharge on the tomatoes they purchase from Florida. Such a deal would help the average laborer, who usually works about 10 to 12 hours a day, raise his or her salary from $10,000 a year to about $17,000.

Corporations like Taco Bell, McDonalds, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and Bon Appetit have already joined the Fair Food Campaign, and now CIW is going after Publix, a Fortune 1,000 company, who have refused to even dialogue with the group for the last two years.

"We want Publix to recognize our humanity," said Nely Rodriguez of the CIW. "We want the people who run Publix to sit at the table with us and look us in the eye and tell us what good reason they have for not joining the Fair Food Program. We want Publix to explain to us how they can claim to be a responsible neighbor given the way they have behaved toward farmworkers and misled their customers for the past several years. I don't believe they would be able to look us in the eye and justify these things. And if not, they need to come forward and do what is right."

A plethora of support has come to CIW in the wake of the fast, including statements from actor Martin Sheen, "Fast Food Nation" producer Eric Schlosser, and Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, who will be joining the group on March 10th in an interfaith ceremony to break the fast.

"On March 10th, 1968, my father broke bread with Cesar Chavez in Delano, California, as he ended his historic non-violent protest for farm labor justice. And so it is my great honor to commemorate that day with farmworkers from Immokalee and allies from around the country as they break their own fast outside Publix headquarters, the site where we rededicate ourselves to bringing dignity to US agriculture and real, lasting respect for human rights to our food system," Kennedy said in a statement.

Religious leaders are also among the growing group supporting the CIW campaign. The Rev. Michael Livingston, director of the National Council of Churches' (NCC) Poverty Initiative and the group's former president, has not only declared his support for the group, but decided to fast together with the workers on-site for the six day period.

"I love tomatoes. Many of us do. But can we eat them in good conscience when we know that the farm workers who pick them are grossly underpaid and work under conditions that most of us do not and would not tolerate?" Livingston writes in a blog posting.

"I do not regard this as a hardship on my part," he says of the fast. "By God's grace I can offer the luxury of my time to brothers and sisters whose humanity I value as much as my own. I count it a privilege, as the season of Lent begins, to, as Paul asks of us in Romans 12:1: "…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."

Started in 1993, CIW represents over 4,000 migrant workers across the state of Florida. Among its accomplishments, the group has aided in the prosecution by the Department of Justice of six slavery operations and the liberation of over 1,000 oppressed workers.

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