Writer for News-Press, a daily newspaper in Fort Myers, Florida.
Co-Coordinator of Student/Farmworker Alliance, a national network of students in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
In Florida, groups organizing for tomato pickers’ rights say they might have been spied on and vilified online by the fast-food conglomerate Burger King. The Fort Myers News-Press traced threatening emails directed at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance to Burger King’s corporate headquarters in Miami, Florida. We speak with the reporter who broke the story and with the coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance who says he received a call from the owner of a private security company posing as a student. [includes rush transcript]
As you [James Ridgeway] talk about tacos and talk about private investigations, we’re going to turn now to Florida groups organizing for tomato pickers, saying they might have been spied on and vilified online by the fast-food conglomerate Burger King. This is according to a report published Saturday in the Fort Myers News-Press just ahead of Tuesday’s Senate hearing on the conditions faced by tomato pickers. The newspaper report traced threatening emails directed at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance to Burger King’s corporate headquarters in Miami, Florida.
Last November, Burger King refused to pay tomato pickers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes purchased. As a result, the growers in Florida canceled previous agreements won by the workers with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.
In response, the Coalition organized a petition campaign that included a possible boycott of Burger King. Since then, they noticed an increase in hostile online posts and at least two attempts by outsiders posing as student activists to infiltrate their group. One of them turned out to be the owner of a private security company that advertises its ability to place “operatives” in the ranks of target groups.
Amy Bennett Williams is the reporter who broke the story, joining us on the line from Fort Myers, Florida. We’re also joined on the phone from Immokalee, Florida by Marc Rodrigues, the co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. He received the call from the owner of the private security firm posing as a student.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Marc, let’s begin with you. Describe what happened. When did you receive the call? What did the person say?
Thanks for having us on, Amy. And before I describe those particular calls, to give your listeners a little bit of a background, we were contacted on March 8th by someone using the email address “stopcorporategreed,” the email address moniker, and this struck us as kind of interesting, because a couple of months before, it had been the same exact email address which had leaked an internal Burger King memo to the Associated Press, in which Burger King threatened to stop tomato purchases, quote-unquote, “from the Immokalee, Florida area.” And the person — when this person contacted us, he told us his name was Kevin and that he was a student at the University of West Virginia. And when we pressed him a little bit more, because he contacted us, you know, under the guise of wanting to get more involved and wanting to get on a conference call that we had mentioned on our website for the upcoming Student Labor Week of Action, we pressed him a little bit more for a little bit more information about himself, and we never heard from him again. And it turns out that this email actually came from Davie, Florida, a few miles outside of Miami, where Burger King has its corporate headquarters, and not in fact West Virginia.
So, exactly three days after we got the email from this “stopcorporategreed” person, we get a call at the office from Cara Schaffer, who turns out to be, as you said, the head of this firm called Diplomatic Tactical Services. She poses as a student from Broward Community College up in Broward County, just north of Miami. It turns out that they have no record of her enrollment. And it turns out that we find out, you know, within a matter of moments after hanging up the phone with her that she is actually the president of Diplomatic Tactical Services. And the reason why we even looked into it or thought that her call was strange was the way that she was very insistent towards the end of her call about getting on the Student/Farmworker Alliance conference call and kind of echoed some of the same language and — you know, attempted to get on this call that this “stopcorporategreed” or Kevin person had done just three days before.
And so, I think it’s important for your listeners to realize what kind of an outfit DTS is, that she is the president of, which, as you said, you know, tries to put covert undercover operatives into organizations and has a former employee that is actually implicated in a murder of four people in a really bizarre incident that happened out on a boat off the shores of Miami.
So we eventually gave Cara call-in info for a couple of our conference calls. And through the process of elimination, after getting a list of phone numbers of people who were on those calls, confirmed that she was on both of those calls but did not say anything or identify herself on either call, even after numerous attempts on our part to — you know, inviting everybody on the call to identify themselves. And I mean, really, the only thing that she found out by being on both of these calls is that we have, you know, an extensive network of students around the country who were taking actions, nonviolent, peaceful actions in support of farm workers.
So this is really, quite frankly, scary and intimidating step that Burger King is taking, by trying to put people of this ilk to infiltrate our organization. And Burger King said in Amy’s article that they don’t know anything about this. But what I’m wondering is, why would a private investigation/intelligence firm, which just happens to be based in the Miami area, suddenly one day out of its own volition decide to try to infiltrate the Student/Farmworker Alliance?
Amy Bennett Williams, you wrote this story for the Fort Myers News-Press. Can you talk about your conversation with Burger King and what else you found in this story of infiltration of the Immokalee Workers?
AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS: Well, I spoke with Burger King’s official spokesman, a man named Keva Silversmith, and he was very careful to say that he had no knowledge of or information about Diplomatic Tactical Services, always careful to use the first-person pronoun. And as for the online postings and an email that I received that we traced back to Burger King corporate headquarters, he said, “Hey, this is a corporation in which our employees are allowed to use our internet for personal purposes, and this was a personal email. And, you know, is it official communication? No. But are our employees are entitled to their opinions? Yes.” And he has been very accessible and also very quick to deny any Burger King involvement in this at all. But as I was researching the story, I found that this is, as your previous guest said, this is a very common set of tactics in the world, and I spoke with folks from the Center for Media and Democracy who pointed out that this follows a very classic pattern of discovery and denial.
Marc Rodrigues, how will you protect yourself that this point? And can you talk about your demands right now around the whole issue of Burger King refusing to pay the extra penny, what the story is about, why this is such a threat to Burger King, the organizing you’re doing?
Yeah, I mean, just to kind of build on what Amy was saying, in terms of this whole Astroturf campaign of really libelous comments against the CIW after any article or even YouTube video that mentioned the CIW, this person with the moniker “activist2008” would go on and post just these really ridiculous comments, saying things like the Taco Bell and McDonald’s agreements just happened so that the CIW could line its own pockets, that it’s making millions off of duped supporters, and things like that that could really be considered libelous. And we just think it’s very unfortunate and disappointing that Burger King has chosen this path to go down. And it’s very disappointing that they’re trying, along with more conservative sectors of the Florida tomato industry, to block the McDonald’s and Taco Bell agreements.
But in response to that, I mean, we’re not going to get, you know, overly paranoid or cautious, even though this is an attempt on their part to intimidate and to stifle our voices. We know that what we’re doing is just. We know that the workers’ demands are just and are fair and can be implemented and were being implemented until Burger King took these steps. And we know that what we’re doing is nonviolent and legal. And we’re going keep on doing what we’re doing, until Burger King comes to the table and dialogues and negotiates with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And, you know, consumers across this country and all of your listeners today can play a huge role in that by signing onto the CIW’s national petition campaign against sweatshops and slavery in the fields.
Just this past November, the seventh case of modern-day slavery in the past ten years in the agricultural industry in the United States came to light when three workers had to punch their way out of the ventilation hatch of the back of a U-haul truck that they were locked in, part of a group of about fifteen workers being held against their will and being forced to pick tomatoes. And Burger King and other large purchasers of Florida tomatoes have the ability and the responsibility to make sure that these types of abuses are ended and are ended today. So folks can find out more about this petition campaign and add their name and add their voice to that today by going to our website, which is ciw-online.org or directly to the online petition itself at fairfoodnation.org/petition, that’s fairfoodnation.org/petition.
Marc Rodrigues, I want to thank you for joining us, co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, the national network of students in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, joining us from Fort Myers, Florida, and also Amy Bennett Williams, who wrote the piece, broke the story in the Fort Myers News-Press. We will link to that story at democracynow.org.