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Accord With Tomato Pickers Ends Boycott Of Taco Bell

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page A06

A group of tomato pickers from Florida announced an end to a boycott of Taco Bell yesterday after the fast-food chain and its parent company agreed to meet demands to improve wages and working conditions for the farmworkers.

In what both sides called an unprecedented agreement, the fast-food company said it will increase the amount it pays for tomatoes by a penny per pound, with the increase to go directly to workers' wages. Taco Bell said it will help the farmworkers' efforts to improve working and living conditions.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group made up largely of indigent immigrants who work tomato fields in southwest Florida, and representatives of Taco Bell and its corporate parent, Yum Brands Inc., announced the agreement at a news conference at Yum headquarters in Louisville. The farmworkers had traveled there for a protest on Saturday.

Although they praised the outcome, both sides stressed that the fast-food industry as a whole needs to do more.

"Now we must convince other companies that they have the power to change the way they do business and the way workers are treated," said Lucas Benitez, a founding member of the workers coalition.

Jonathan Blum, senior vice president of Yum -- the world's largest fast-food corporation -- said that laws need to be changed to protect workers and that the industry needs to hold growers accountable. He added that the company had included language in its supplier code of conduct to ensure that indentured servitude by suppliers is prohibited -- referring to several cases in recent years in which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers helped federal authorities prosecute farm bosses for holding workers as slaves.

The coalition had called a boycott of Taco Bell, which buys its fresh tomatoes from Immokalee growers, after the company refused to negotiate unless everyone else in the industry did as well; Yum argued that Taco Bell's share of the total amount of tomatoes bought is small.

The coalition, meanwhile, argued that Yum, which includes KFC, A&W, Long John Silver's and Pizza Hut as well as Taco Bell, helped keep the workers in poverty by pressuring suppliers to provide a volume discount. Farmworkers today usually earn 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, the same rate as 30 years ago, and have to pick 2 tons of tomatoes to earn about $50.

The Taco Bell boycott had picked up considerable support in the last two years, especially among students and church leaders. Students at 21 colleges had removed or blocked the restaurant chain from their campuses, and "Boot the Bell" campaigns were active in at least 300 colleges and universities, and in more than 50 high schools. Religious organizations actively supporting the boycott included the National Council of Churches, representing 50 million Christians. Former president Jimmy Carter, among the workers' most prominent supporters, helped negotiate the resolution reached through his center.

About 80 Immokalee farmworkers had traveled by bus to Louisville for what they called their Taco Bell Truth Tour, stopping at 15 cities en route to bolster support for the boycott. The rally on Saturday, featuring celebrities such as Martin Sheen and Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, will go on, coalition members said, as a celebration of the agreement.


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