Hundreds of farm workers and their supporters are in New York City ahead of Wendy’s shareholder meeting to demand improved working conditions for those who pick its tomatoes. The fast-food giant — which has nearly 6,600 restaurants in the U.S. and around the world, ranking second only to McDonald’s — is the latest target in the Fair Food Campaign organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. So far, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell have all joined the White House-recognized social responsibility program, agreeing to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes to raise wages and only buy from fields where workers’ rights are respected. We speak with CIW farm worker and organizer, Gerardo Reyes-Chávez.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the latest target in the push for fast-food giants to buy their tomatoes through the Fair Food Campaign organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. So far, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell have all joined the White House-recognized social responsibility program. They have agreed to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes to raise wages and only buy from fields where workers’ rights are respected.
Now the delegation of workers has come to New York City to focus on Wendy’s, one of the highest-earning fast-food chains in the country that’s so far refused to sign on. Hundreds of protesters joined a delegation of workers from the coalition for protests Saturday at two Wendy’s locations. This is farm worker and organizer Gerardo Reyes-Chávez.
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: We are here in front of the Wendy’s. We just had a protest as part of a national weekend of action. And we’re here in New York because there’s a lot of—a lot of groups here in New York supporting the Campaign for Fair Food.
AMY GOODMAN: Wendy’s has nearly 6,600 restaurants in the United States and around the world and ranks second only to McDonald’s.
Well, as the campaign mounts for the company to join the Fair Food Campaign, this Thursday the fast-food giant holds its annual shareholders meeting here in New York City, where it will again come under pressure. Wendy’s did not respond to Democracy Now!’s repeated requests to come on the show or submit a written comment.
But for more, we’re joined now by Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, the farm worker and organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers you just heard from. He has last joined us on the show in October of last year, just before Chipotle agreed to improve wages and work conditions for those who pick tomatoes used in its products. There, he was in Denver.
Gerardo, welcome back to Democracy Now!
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, what is this campaign all about?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: This campaign is about bringing corporations to establish a different way of doing business. We’re asking them to be responsible and to pay a premium pay to address the sub-poverty wages that workers have received. Today, for example, a worker receives, for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, around 45 to 50 cents. And there’s been many abuses going on in the fields, like sexual harassment, situations of discrimination, verbal and physical abuse, and many other issues that need to be addressed. In the extreme, there’s been cases of slavery.
So what we’re asking corporations to do is to work with us in addressing these issues by conditioning their purchasing on their—what we call the Fair Food Program, which is enclosed in this little booklet that’s being distributed in every farm now that the tomato industry, represented by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, have signed an agreement with the coalition to establish all of these new rights because of the market power that’s behind it. So we’re asking Wendy’s to join with us and to work to implement also the Fair Food Program, to work with us in enforcing.
AMY GOODMAN: And who—who created the Fair Food Program?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Oh, that’s a very good question. The Fair Food Program was created by the worker community. We created the rights, including—included in this booklet, for example, there is the right—the right to have a clock in the fields, because many times when you went to the fields, you had to wait, and that time was not accounted for. Now it has to be. Also, the right to don’t overfill the bucket, which is a right that represents, cities right now, 10 percent less tomatoes, that before you have to just give for free. The right to work with a committee on health and safety in the fields where you are working, where workers have a voice now in the workplace to talk about how to eliminate threats to their health, their safety, obviously, but also to improve the environment in which you are working.
AMY GOODMAN: Gerardo, you have picked tomatoes for years. Can you talk about your own history?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Yeah. I mean, I have worked picking tomatoes, picking oranges, picking watermelons, to a little bit of everything.
AMY GOODMAN: In Florida?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: In Florida, yeah. My experience, I mean, I have seen bosses taking our money away, not paying us after we’ve done the work, and because of that, not having a place to live. Then I have to change jobs because of that and started to pick oranges, then came back to tomatoes. So, I’ve seen many of these abuses going on.
The reason why I met the coalition and become involved in this was because one of the cases that was brought to federal court by the CIW involved workers that became my—some of my best friends, that we became roommates, basically working in this orange company just picking oranges, after they brought this case to court and it was prosecuted. Until now, there’s been seven cases that have been brought to court. And the amount of workers that have been liberated from this situation ranges around 1,200 workers.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get these various companies to sign on, like, for example, your more recent victory with Chipotle?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: It’s basically a collaboration. With the Campaign for Fair Food, we’re asking people to support us, and there’s various ways in which people can get involved. We do protests. For example, today, we know there’s over 12 protests in this weekend. There was 12, around 12—more than 12 protests in the country of different chapters of—and organizations that are supporting what we are doing. We’re asking also consumers in—when we do presentations in universities, in churches, people visit Immokalee to get to see firsthand—
AMY GOODMAN: Immokalee is in Florida.
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: In Florida, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain where, for people who aren’t familiar with it.
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: It’s in the southwest, the southwest part of Florida, and it’s basically where the heart of the tomato industry is located. The tomato industry have land all over the East Coast. During the months of October—from October to May, we produce around 90 percent of the fresh tomatoes that are produced on U.S. soil. So, when we—when we talk to people, we ask them to stand with us—not to solve our problem, not to come with a strategy from outside. The strategy is created by the community. And we’re asking people to stand in solidarity. And it’s worked.
AMY GOODMAN: A recent report by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, they conducted a 10-day fact-finding mission to the United States. It found that "With a few exceptions, most companies still struggle to understand the implications of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Those that do have policies in place, in turn face the challenge of turning such policies into effective practices." Gerardo, this finding—
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: It is—
AMY GOODMAN: —and how you get these corporations to accept? I mean, it’s interesting that this—your whole campaign has been endorsed by President Obama. He recently singled out the Coalition of Immokalee Fair Food Program in a new report, calling it "one of the most successful and innovative programs" addressing and actively changing the conditions of modern-day slavery.
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Yeah. To us, it’s an honor, and it’s the result of a lot of work that has gone into the campaign. And, I mean, we have, in some of these cases, got to work undercover, help people escape, and just work to bring these cases to light and to justice. We don’t want to be pursuing more and more of these cases. And the reason why it was—this program was recognized in the work against slavery is because this program created market consequences, the zero-tolerance policy. If a company is found with a case of slavery happening on their premises, the buyers that have signed, they have to cut purchases immediately. So that creates an incentive for the entire industry to work in implementing in the best possible way the rights that are included under this program, to eliminate the possibilities of slavery to continue to exist.
AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up, Wendy’s—have they responded to your campaign? We tried to get a comment from them; we weren’t able to.
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: We also tried. We went to different stores. On Saturday, we had different delegations, and then we had the march. We asked to talk to the managers, and it seems that they were instructed not to talk to us, not to receive anything from us. And the interesting thing is, Emil Brolick, who used to be the president of Taco Bell and now is the CEO of Wendy’s, when they signed the agreement, a first agreement for fair food—
AMY GOODMAN: And did he sign the agreement?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Yum! Brands did. But he came out publicly saying, "We’re willing to play a leadership role within our industry to be a part of the solution."
AMY GOODMAN: Because he was part of Wendy’s at the time?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Because—no, at the time, he was part of Taco Bell. And when they signed, when Yum! Brands signed for Taco Bell, he said, "We hope others in the restaurant industry and supermarket retail trade will follow our leadership." It was the right decision back then. And now, with 11 corporations on board, with most of the tomato companies on board, it is only the better—if it was a right decision back then, it is much more right right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. What are you going to do around the Wendy’s annual shareholders meeting?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: We are going to have a presence outside, and we’re inviting media. The most important part is the presence, because we want to let the shareholders know that this campaign is going to continue until they talk about it within their meetings. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Where is the meeting taking place here?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: The meeting is going to be at the Sofitel Hotel on 45th—
AMY GOODMAN: In Midtown Manhattan.
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Forty-five in Midtown Manhattan, yeah. And we are also asking people to sign the petition that some of us is driving. They can do it by visiting our website, which is ciw-online.org. And until now, there’s around 87,000 people that have signed. So, we hope that listeners and viewers can participate on this, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Who next, after Wendy’s?
GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Well, there’s some campaigns going on, inviting Kroger, inviting other buyers from the supermarket industry.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, farm worker, organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, here in New York City for Wendy’s annual shareholders meeting.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back on climate change in a minute.