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Yo No Quiero Taco Bell: Farmworker Struggles and the Legacy of C�sar Chavez

by Catherine Cunningham and Sean SellersCommonDreams.org
March 21st, 2004

"Si, se puede." Yes, it is possible. These words were made famous by the farmworker movement of the 1960's and 70's. Today is the birthday of the man who helped lead that movement to victory-C�sar Chavez. Born in 1927, Chavez grew up witnessing injustices that many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans face on a daily basis. After returning from a two-year tour with the Navy at age 19, he realized that the racism he faced as a child permeated all sectors of American society, and he began to study the struggles of Gandhi and St. Francis.

In 1962, Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Over the next thirty years, UFW used nonviolent tactics-from consumer boycotts to 300+ mile marches-to galvanize a historic movement for farmworker justice, winning basic organizing rights and better wages. One of its most significant gains was the termination of the Bracero program in 1964. Similar to Bush's current proposal for immigration "reform," the World War II-era program allowed Mexican immigrants to work in the U.S. for menial pay without the possibility of permanent residence or citizenship.

Unfortunately, many gains farm workers struggled for have been weakened or rolled back entirely. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average farm worker currently earns under $7500 per year. These miserable wages have stagnated for decades, lagging sharply behind rising costs of living. International trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO place increasing pressure on growers to keep overhead costs low; paying farm workers sub-poverty wages is one way to accomplish this.

In Immokalee, Florida, the situation is dire. South Florida is the nation's leading producer of fresh tomatoes. Pickers there earn 40-50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they fill. At this rate, a farm worker must pick and haul nearly 2 tons of tomatoes to earn $50 in a day. Put another way, farm workers must pick 320-pounds per hour to simply earn federal minimum wage. Florida pickers have received the same piece rate since 1978, although it's worth 65% less today. Predictably, they do not receive overtime pay or benefits such as healthcare.

Still, it gets worse. Eric Schlosser, best-selling author of Fast Food Nation, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In the fields near Immokalee�a new form of indentured servitude flourishes. Illegal immigrants have been forced to work for below minimum wage to pay off their debts to people-smugglers and labor contractors. Since the mid-1990s the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted five cases of slavery in the region." In fact, an anonymous Justice Department official called south Florida "ground zero" for modern-day American slavery.

These prosecutions would not have been possible without the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farm worker organization of mostly Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants. The CIW formed in 1995 by organizing a general strike to defeat proposed wage cuts. Since its initial success, the CIW has garnered a broad range of support and the 2003 RFK Human Rights Award. Their work has been featured in major publications from The New Yorker to a 2003 cover story in National Geographic on 21st century slavery. In their ongoing fight for dignity and living wages, CIW is now targeting Taco Bell.

Taco Bell is a major purchaser of Florida tomatoes. Their enormous purchasing power gives them a unique opportunity to intervene on behalf of farm workers who subsidize corporate profits with sweatshop tomatoes. CIW is asking the fast-food giant to pay one more penny per pound for its tomatoes. This meager increase would nearly double farm workers' wages while costing consumers only a fraction of a penny. For three years, Taco Bell has refused to budge, myopically insisting that slavery and abuse is not their problem. Taco Bell refuses to negotiate with CIW and cannot guarantee that it does not use forced labor in its tomato supply chain. That's why, in the spirit of Chavez, CIW is spearheading a national boycott against Taco Bell.

So let us commemorate the life and struggles of Cesar Chavez and many others who have tirelessly fought against this inhumane institution. Just as consumers refused to purchase grapes twenty-five years ago in support of striking farmworkers, we must bring accountability to Taco Bell. Corporations such as Taco Bell must recognize the vital role they play in bringing justice to the fields of America. For more information about the Taco Bell boycott and to send an e-mail expressing your dismay for the abhorrent working conditions in Florida, visit www.ciw-online.org.

Ms. Cunningham received a B.A. in Latin American Studies at UT-Austin; Mr. Sellers will receive a B.S. in Communication Studies. They are members of the Austin Solidarity Project, a community organization dedicated to supporting the Taco Bell boycott. Contact them at austinsolidarityproject@yahoo.com.





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