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Rotten Tomatoes for Publix

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Robyn Blumner
December 7, 2009

When I go to a Publix supermarket—and I shop there a lot, as my Visa bill attests—there always seems to be one charity or another on display. Around the holidays, a Salvation Army Santa is typically by the entry, ringing his bell for change, and there are pre-packaged paper grocery bags that one can buy and donate to a hungry family. It’s nice and vaguely suggests that Publix cares about the poor.


But it turns out that this charitable visage is a deceptive public face. Behind the scenes, Publix is refusing to help the most vulnerable workers in Florida secure decent pay and dignified working conditions. The farmworkers who pick the tomatoes in Florida fields that Publix sells by the ton make an average of 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket, a wage that has stayed essentially flat for a generation.


Publix won’t join a campaign to pay farmworkers just an extra penny per pound, even though its participation would put real pressure on Florida tomato growers to better farmworkers’ lives.


In the last couple of years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker advocacy group, has been remarkably successful in getting large buyers of Florida tomatoes to join its Campaign for Fair Food.


Corporate giants such as Yum Brands (which includes Taco Bell and Pizza Hut), McDonald’s, Subway and Burger King, as well as the Whole Foods supermarket chain, have all agreed to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes—with most agreeing to an extra 1.5 cents per pound to cover program administrative expenses—and buy from growers who will work with the program.


But not Publix.


Publix has taken a “talk to the hand” approach. Corporate spokeswoman Shannon Patten says that the company won’t get involved in “a labor dispute between the farmworker and farmer.”


Even after it was reported that two of the farms Publix has bought tomatoes from, Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L’s, used bosses who were convicted of enslaving farmworkers from Mexico and Guatemala—holding them captive and brutalizing them—Publix does little more than shrug.


When asked, Patten says, “Nobody’s in favor of slavery,” as if this absolves the company of its duty to reject suppliers who employ shockingly abusive labor tactics.


Publix uses its collective buying power to negotiate low tomato prices with growers but refuses to unleash some of that corporate might to help workers who toil day after day in the withering Florida sun for the same per-bucket wage their parents earned.


When Patten says, “We are a caring company,” she must mean that it cares about profits, not people.


Compare this stance with how a Publix competitor sees its role in the wider community. Whole Foods has agreed to pay 1.5 cents more per pound of tomatoes and to only buy from growers who will pass the added wage directly to workers. As a result, two boutique farms, Alderman Farms and Lady Moon Farms, have signed on to the program, says Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.


A major grower, East Coast Growers and Packers, has also broken ranks with the intransigent Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and agreed to be part of the Campaign for Fair Food. Hopefully this significant defection will crack the wall of grower resistance and convince other farms to join.


East Coast has also agreed to abide by a code of conduct that secures other labor rights, such as giving workers the right to complain about dangerous working conditions without fear of getting fired.


But Publix wants no part of helping to bring about this new day of humane treatment and dignity for farmworkers.


The CIW is scheduled to hold a protest today at a Publix supermarket in Lakeland, Fla., near Publix corporate headquarters. Similar protests have been held over the last month at Publix supermarkets around Florida. Farmworkers and their supporters hold signs that say “Exploitation: It’s What’s for Dinner” or feature other clever slogans.


Who knows if this will eventually persuade the corporate suits. What I do know is that I often pay $1.50 or more for a pound of tomatoes at Publix. Another penny isn’t a big deal to me. I doubt it means much to Publix. But to some of the nation’s lowest-paid workers, that penny can change their lives.


Robyn Blumner is a civil liberties and labor law expert who writes about individual freedom, trade, globalization and workers’ rights. She is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in St. Petersburg, Fla., and syndicated by Tribune Media Services. E-mail her at blumner@sptimes.com.

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