Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Guest Post by the Hubster: Part 4

To add to the challenge, the weather was not cooperating.  Rev. Damico, present during the hunger strike, wrote in her journal of her experience, “Sunny California is being deluged with sheeting rain. The workers scurry to collect their things and get shelter under the tarps. But it’s too late. Everyone and everything is completely soaked. But despite the wet and cold, spirits are high” (Damico, “Fast for Fair Food”).  Day two of the strike began the same.  “Six a.m. I rise and pray for Taco Bell. The rain is driving down hard. I’m hoping that the company will have compassion and see these workers and offer to dialogue with them” (Damico, “Fast for Fair Food”).  The workers extreme sacrifice, and Rev. Damico’s prayers,  would be answered as within eight weeks of the end of the strike, Taco Bell was sitting down with Benitez and the CIW.  However, the negotiations were sluggish and frustrating as they were still going on after two years (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).

The final tactic that the CIW used was called the “Taco Bell Truth Tour.”  This is what Dennis Jacobsen would call agitation.  “Agitation is a means of getting others to act out of their own power and self-interest, out of their vision for their life...Relationship is a prerequisite of agitation” (Jacobsen 66).  Though Taco Bell avoided claiming the relationship with the Immokalee workers, it was there.  The workers also understood that Taco Bell was not their direct employer, but knew that they had influence and power over their suppliers, such as the owners of the tomato fields of south Florida in which they worked.  What the CIW wanted was to get Taco Bell to act out of their own power and self-interest to help the farm workers that provided part of their tomato supply.  They needed to agitate the corporate giant into moving as their other tactics seemed to be ignored.

The first tour began in 2002 when two busloads of workers left the fields of Immokalee and drove to the Taco Bell headquarters “which culminated in a demonstration of 2,000 workers and supporters outside the company’s blue, glass office tower in Irvine, in California’s Orange County” (Bacon, “No Quiero”).   This was a tactic that was used every year until their victory in 2005.  Through this tour they were changing the identity of the Taco Bell brand, effectively hurting the company’s image.  “Instead of the standard association of Taco Bell with a little, quirky talking Chihuahua, they associated Taco Bell with farm workers virtually enslaved in the fields” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  Though it is not known with any certainty, this is seemingly what pushed the corporation to finish negotiations.

News of victory came during the “Truth Tour” of 2005.  “Just as the 2005 Taco Bell Truth tour was arriving in Louisville , Kentucky, home of Taco Bell's parent company. They've won EVERY demand made as a requirement for ending the boycott campaign, with a legally-binding document signed by Taco Bell” (“Support the Taco Bell Boycott,” CLR). ../AppData/Local/Temp/(http:/www.clrlabor.org/campaigns/Bell/bell.htm). On March 8, 2005 a press conference was held at the YUM! headquarters there in Louisville where the Vice President of the company finally claimed the direct relationship to the workers in Immokalee.  “Taco Bell has taken a leadership role in social responsibility today by helping the CIW to improve the working and pay conditions for farm workers on the tomato fields in Florida” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). 

Taco Bell “agreed to enforce human rights standards in the fields, holding their suppliers accountable for the treatment of their workers and they would pay 1¢ more a pound for tomatoes directly to the workers themselves” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  Rev. Noelle Damico said, “It’s precedent setting.  Never before in history has a fast food company paid money back down their supply chain so that it would address the workers sub-poverty wages” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”).  The boycott was over.  The fight against injustice, however, did not cease as the CIW moved on to McDonald’s (they reached an agreement in 2007), Burger King (they reached an agreement in 2008), Subway (also reached an agreement in 2008), as well as college campus food services such as Aramark and Sodexo  to continue the struggle (“Immokalee 101,” CIW).

This is seemingly a never ending battle.  Injustice is everywhere, in present times as well as in ancient history.  This story is eerily similar to the story of Egypt.  On January 27, 2011 our class was taught the meaning of “corvée” labor, or state slaves.  The Hebrews came to Egypt as guest people, escaping the famine in Canaan.  According to the rabbinic Midrash, “The Israelites were at first paid wages for their work… Then the wages were withheld, and they were simply forced to work” (Gathje/Gienapp Jan 27, 2011).  Looking at the Immokalee situation, they, too, were also paid in the beginning, albeit not very well, but paid nonetheless.  However, with inflation coupled with no wage increase in thirty years, they, too, were quickly moved towards slavery and captivity.  They would eventually be working much more and paid the equivalent of nothing.

With this comparison as a backdrop, it then begged the question, what were the theological implications and issues behind the Taco Bell labor campaign?  The first one that stood out, especially in light of the Exodus story, was the issue of slavery.  Greg Asbed of the CIW writes of the slave-like conditions, “The exploitation experienced by farmworkers today can only be described as humiliating and inhumane.  In fact, the vast majority of US farmworkers find themselves facing conditions somewhere along a continuum from sweatshops to actual modern-day slavery” (Asbed).  In addition, La Prensa, a newspaper in San Diego reported in 2002, “In the past five years the CIW has provided the Florida Department of Justice documentation of three slavery operations” (Bacon, “No Quiero”).  This was in modern day America, not the 1860s when slavery was common.  “One southwest Florida employer cited held over 400 people in bondage, forcing them to work 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, for as little as $20 a day. Armed guards stood watch in the fields and work camps where pickers lived” (Bacon, “No Quiero”).  The Bible is very clear that God is on the side of the oppressed.  These workers, and their families, have been oppressed and on the fringe of society for a very long time.  As God believers, whether Christians or Jews, we were called to stand with, and for, these farm hands. 

In the case of the CIW, this was exactly what happened.  Local churches began to stand up for the organization.  They marched and protested with the workers.  The PC(USA) Campaign for Fair Food, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA), has walked along side the CIW all the way through the boycott and beyond.  There have been other churches and denominations who have done the same:

“Through the Campaign for Fair Food, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has joined with the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and many other faith bodies to work side-by-side with the CIW farm workers toward a more sustainable and just food system.” (“Background on the CFF,” PC(USA))

With the injustice of slavery comes a whole list of other theological issues: human dignity, exploitation of God’s creation, misuse of power, etc.  Any of these could be expounded upon and cases be built upon the themes.  However, here in the South, there was another theological issue that stood out: racism. 

“Three decades ago, when Edward R. Murrow produced “Harvest of Shame,” the celebrated expose of semi-slave conditions among Florida farm workers, the state’s tomato pickers were African-Americans and Black immigrants from the Caribbean. While Haitians still make up a significant percentage of that work force today, most Immokalee residents today are Mexican and Guatemalan.” (Bacon, “No Quiero”)

On many of the Taco Bell Truth Tours, strategic stops were made in Atlanta, Ga, Montgomery, AL, and Memphis, TN because of the obvious correlations between the Civil Rights movement and the CIW labor campaign.  Martin Luther King, Jr. also knew that the two topics of civil rights and economics went hand in hand and had made sure to tie the two together in many of his speeches.  Following his example, the CIW made similar speeches all across the country, making sure the public knew the campaign had civil rights roots as well. 

Part 3

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