Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Tomato Vendetta

I’ve been thinking lately about the Taco Bell boycott that Presbyterians got involved in at the 2002 General Assembly. The campaign produced results in 2005, when the parent corporation (Yum! Brands) agreed to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes picked for Taco Bell (but interestingly, not for its other brands, such as Pizza Hut).

The “victory” was celebrated at General Assembly in 2006, and then sights were set on other big fast-food giants. McDonald's and Burger King also buy Florida tomatoes. Could they be pressured to do what Taco Bell did?

News has just come out that Burger King will not surrender. The Miami Herald wrote a story that seems to be cribbed directly from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) own publicity.

McDonald's had already arched its back to the CIW demands, saying that its own pay and labor policies are already correcting the problems. CIW was not satisfied (click here and scroll to the 5/11 article).

A third party--one of the original shareholders filing a resolution to force YUM! Brands to raise wages by a penny a pound--conducted a study of tomato pickers’ pay at one grower that supplies tomatoes for McDonald's. The study concludes that these particular pickers earn a decent wage, better than minimum wage and better than what the Taco Bell campaign was seeking. But CIW contends that that study was tainted by partial funding by McDonald's, is riddled with errors, and should be considered sham research.

So where does that leave us?

My guess would be that the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the CIW/Presbyterian attitude that fast-food corporate tomato buyers are lying oppressors, and the McDonald's and Burger King corporate statements that make things look rather okay for the tomato pickers. There seems to be a lot of self-interest operating on both sides of the issue, which makes it troublesome that the Presbyterian Church would thus so routinely act as if CIW were always noble and corporations were always despicable--unless those corporations decide to do what Presbyterians demand.

While poking around the issue, here are some things I found and considered:

First, despite the clamor and glare of publicity around the YUM! Brands capitulation to the Taco Bell boycott, tomato laborers as a whole gained very little. Perhaps a thousand workers were affected, and then only when they pick tomatoes that end up being sold to Taco Bell and not to other YUM! Brands chains.

I wrote to Ruth Rosenbaum, PhD, Executive Director of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, Inc. (CREA) in Hartford, Connecticut. She headed the promising but disputed study of pay for tomato pickers above. I asked if anyone had studied the relative sense of wellbeing for the Taco Bell tomato pickers before and after the penny-a-pound increase. Were they indeed better off after all the publicity and years of effort?

“The short answer,” Dr. Rosenbaum replied, “is that there has been some benefit to the workers picking for the tomato growers who sold to YUM! for Taco Bell. But big effect, unfortunately no.” It appears that the main effect of the YUM! Brands agreement was much more rhetorical and symbolic than it was sweepingly revolutionary for the wellbeing of the pickers. That’s a shame.

I also wanted to know if nearly doubling the wages for the Taco Bell pickers created an economic ripple, raising the rates other pickers receive or causing a shortage of pickers for other growers, because all the pickers would naturally want to pick for the growers supplying Taco Bell.

“There really is no such study,” Dr. Rosenbaum lamented. It turns out that neither CIW nor those funding its boycott campaign were interested in participating in a study before and after the YUM! Brands agreement. Thus the data aren’t available, and we cannot say for sure if the boycott accomplished much actual benefit, when all is said and done.

Second, CREA is working on an additional study of a set of growers who supply tomatoes to repackers who sell to McDonald's. The single grower in the first study had exemplary practices in relation to its pickers. The preliminary results from the other growers are mixed, according to Rosenbaum. The report is yet to be released but will become public.

Third, at a time when the PCUSA was cutting its staff and especially its missionary force by dozens and dozens of persons, the Taco Bell boycott brought about the hiring in 2004 of a United Church of Christ pastor as the PCUSA Associate for Fair Food Concerns. Noelle Damico appears on the staff of the Presbyterian Hunger Program and is hot on the trail of Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, and others.

Fourth, while McDonald's has not rolled over to the CIW boycott, it has taken some decent steps toward fairness and against some despicable labor practices of the worst operators. The rhetoric of CIW in response thoroughly discounts anything McDonald's has done (click here and scroll to 1/31/07). One would think that at least such excellent McDonald's practices as stipulating that pickers be hired as regular employees and not day laborers would be commended.

Fifth, Burger King has also refused to accede to the CIW boycott, but it has offered the CIW laborers an opportunity to enter into the Burger King work force. This would give willing migrant workers a permanent job with training and advancement opportunities. Such workers could foresee a modest future rather than the defeating cycle of grinding poverty in migrant farm labor.

This Burger King response was immediately met by derision and union posturing by the organizers at CIW. The Burger King rationale, however, bears some consideration. Burger King does not hire, supervise, or pay tomato pickers. Burger King buys from tomato repackers that buy from growers that hire the pickers. If one wants to change labor practices, shouldn’t one go to the grower as the responsible party, not to the end user two parties removed? Burger King operates all over the nation, however, and thus makes a nice, juicy target. Ubiquity seems to be Burger King’s greatest vulnerability; it can be picketed anywhere with ease! The same was true for Taco Bell.

Sixth, Christian compassion for the migrant tomato pickers is due. The situation of migrant farm workers in the tomato fields is definitely no picnic. The labor is back breaking and the pay is minimal. Conditions are hot and dirty.

On top of that, human depravity has found ways to further exploit and even criminally victimize the workers. Slavery has been found and prosecuted in several instances. Some corrupt employers are accused of shorting paychecks. Some bullying crew bosses require favors, take kickbacks, and tyrannize “troublemakers.” Irregular hours combine with low pay and day-labor conditions to ensure poverty and no job security.

There can be no denying that the lot of the tomato picker is dreadful. Everything reasonable and fair ought to be done to bring about justice, compassion, and fair play for these bottom-of-the-heap jobholders. Advocacy and a helping hand seem to be logical responses to the unfairness and misery of the pickers’ lot. Prayer and concern seem essential as well.

However, human nature is such that not everything CIW contends and wants can be entirely noble, and not everything growers and corporate buyers contend and provide can be entirely evil. Farm workers and those who organize them can be controlled at times by inflated self-interest and at times by humanitarian goodness. Tomato growers and large corporations who eventually buy their tomatoes may be controlled at times by greed and exploitation and at times by good intentions and kindness.

The trick for those of us wanting to support what is right is to move beyond the immediate stereotyping and overheated rhetoric to seek to discern the truth of the matter as best we can.

One final thought: Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick loaded on a heavy helping of guilt in his letter to Burger King: “Any company who profits from the exploitation of others is morally and ethically responsible for ending that exploitation.” That is pretty strong language: profiting from exploiting others. Kirkpatrick just assumes that Burger King condones or even promotes exploitation.

I wonder if Kirkpatrick ever considers his own advice. Any denomination that profits from the exploitation of others is morally and ethically responsible for ending that exploitation. Hmmm. What might that have to do with Kirkpatrick’s aggressive disputes over property and per capita with congregations feeling mightily exploited by their denomination?


Blogger Dave Moody said...

you ask a good question; et vous Dr. Kirkpatrick?

12:07 PM, February 11, 2007  
Blogger Al Sandalow said...

I had a conversation with Noelle Damico about our boycotts when we were both at GA last summer. I will say that she is a bright, energetic, and well spoken woman.

I asked her why we weren’t spending our time and resources giving these workers new skills that they could use to find other jobs. If these people were trained for other work, they could find better paying jobs in other vocations. If that worked, a smaller workforce available to the growers would force them to pay higher wages for those who remained. Simple market economics.

Her response was that most of these folks were farmers from Mexico and preferred to work in farm occupations. What I tried to get out of her is how many of these people are in the country illegally. She was careful not to answer that question very directly, which leads me to believe that many are not legal citizens.

Perhaps it is that fact that makes them unable to find other occupations. You would need to prove you are here legally to work for Burger King, so Burger King’s offer of jobs may not be attractive.

I share your feeling of compassion for these workers, but I also feel that we not being told the whole story and that we’re still using 20th century tactics for a 21 century problem.

9:51 AM, February 14, 2007  
Blogger Jon said...

Interesting article. To Al, I would say that as Presbyterians we will not eliminate low paid labor, but we can ask for a measure of justice in it (someone will do these jobs, under the existing companies, right?). So education is a fine example, and I am sure your help would be welcome, but it does not actually elminate the problem.

To Jim, I appreciate the attempt at balance. Given your statement that "Christian compassion for the migrant tomato pickers is due," how would you have gone about this? What is effective (pastoral care? relief adi? oversight? shaming? nothing? encouraging companies to act admirably?)?

I'm also curious about the mission angle. Presbyterians actually have a history of boycotting. I am technically an "MK" (although I left as an infant) born in Congo, and I remember the Nestle boycot from when I was little.

Missionaries have always been involved with immigrants at home, often interceeding on their behalves. Missionaries were often in direct competition with corporate interests (so the British East India company encouraged the English government to refuse sponsorship of missionaries; missionaries in Congo were anti-Leopold whistleblowers, etc).

To me it sounds like your criticism is more one of implimentation than of the right to do something. I get frustrated, because I have friends for whom no protest is ever wrong, but also routinely encounter those who lack any social ethic. I also get frustrated when we are forced to prioritize these tasks (direct evangelism trumps social justice, which trumps clergy health care, etc.) as if the gospel does not require proclamation, and justice, and compassion.

11:58 AM, February 16, 2007  
Blogger Rockabilly Pastor said...


Maybe Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Stated Clerk, Cliff Kirkpatrick will decided to add Fed-Ex to the list of PCUSA boycotted companies.

I would ask that you check out my blog article asking folks to boycott Fed-Ex.

Fed-Ex destroyed my 12 string guitar when I shipped it last year but refuses to make good on my damage claim. As a result, I am asking folks to boycott Fed-Ex. I would love to get some more coverage of my problem.

Do you think Clifton Kirkpatrick would join my boycott of FedEx? We Presbyterian’s boycott Taco Bell and Cliff writes amicus briefs for everything. Do you think Cliff would actually join a boycott that would benefit a Presbyterian Minister?

Following the Son,

Ed Boyce

5:29 PM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Ruritanian Muglug said...

Humorously enough, there is actually a nonsense song called "The Tomato Vendetta" on the album "Handmade" by Mason Williams (c. 1974). Mason Williams was the composer of the instrumental hit "Classical Gas" and one of the main writers of The Smothers Brothers Show. The song is about a man with a pathological hatred of tomatoes, who destroys all the tomatoes in his local supermarkets, before walking out into the street and being run over by a tomato delivery truck -- hence the title of the song.

8:13 PM, August 25, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

I have the album and hence the title for the posting. Mason Williams is so talented and funny. I get a kick out of the "Tomato Vendetta" song.

Speaking of funny, did anyone else see Noelle Damico, headmistress of the PCUSA tomato vendetta, running around General Assembly in San Jose with a big tomato on her head?

Go to this site and scroll down near the bottom:

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

11:58 PM, August 25, 2008  

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