Have It Your Way: Bring down the King

By Nicole Kligerman, Jason Rodney, Kirsten Wittkowski, and Keren Yohannes

This essay was written by Nicole Kligerman ’10, Jason Rodney ’10, Kirsten Wittkowski ’10, and Keren Yohannes ’11.It’s 4:30 a.m. and you’re ready to drop dead. You wished you had gotten more work done the day before, and even having sacrificed the little sleep you get, you’re struggling to get by. But there’s only more of this to look forward to.

Students are not the only ones who know this feeling. While we bind ourselves to books, agricultural workers throughout the country toil in fields for eight to 12 hours a day. After years of living in crowded quarters, working almost constantly and earning sub-poverty wages, tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Fla., are standing up and demanding something better. Now, they’re calling students to act in solidarity by boycotting Burger King (an influential purchaser of Immokalee tomatoes) until the corporation supports the workers’ demands for their basic rights to be met.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed in 1993 in order to expose and combat the daily abuses faced by these farmworkers. It is a membership-led organization of mainly Latino, Haitian and Mayan tomato pickers based in Southwest Florida who produce 2/3 of the nation’s tomatoes and 90 percent of the tomatoes purchased by the fast food industry. In 2001, the Coalition launched their first large-scale campaign targeting Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum Brands, Inc. (who also own KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W, and Long John Silver’s). Their demands included a pay raise of a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick, a workers code of conduct and third party oversight. With the support of religious, labor, and student groups the CIW successfully promoted a national boycott of Taco Bell until Yum Brands agreed to meet their demands in 2005. After a second successful victory against McDonald’s in March of 2007, the CIW has now turned its attention to Burger King.

Given the historic opportunity to follow the precedent set by Yum Brands and McDonald’s and work with the CIW to improve farmworker conditions, Burger King has instead made the disappointing decision to reject the CIW’s demands. The company has instead launched a slander campaign, wrongly claiming that CIW itself is asking Burger King to write it a check and questioning the very real existence of the agreements with McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Ironically, Burger King recently announced strict regulations on how their meatpacking suppliers should treat their livestock, yet refuses to accept guidelines for the treatment of the farmworkers who serve their growers. On top of that, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange declared this month that the extra penny per pound would violate federal and state antitrust laws, and that the law threatens to fine growers who agree to workers’ demands $100,000. It has not been explained how this wage increase would violate federal law.

The majority of tomato pickers in Florida are 18 to 25 years old, the same age group targeted in Burger King’s advertisements. Divisions with our peers in the fields are fomented in Burger King’s scramble for profit. Slick advertising targeted directly at us masks the exploitation behind the Whoppers and fries. Cheap prices for fast food reflect the crippling poverty of the workers who grow that food.

Last weekend, a crowd of thousands gathered outside of the Burger King headquarters in Miami, Fla., to announce a strike against the company. This boycott will continue until Burger King meets workers demands to ensure basic human rights.

Before havin’ it your way, take the demands of tomato pickers into account. Although you are not in the fields of Florida, join in solidarity with modern day slaves by boycotting Burger King. We must decide between supporting the emancipation of agricultural slaves and supporting the increased profit of a multi-national company. Use the pressure of your pockets to make the King fall.

Contact the authors through Nicole Kligerman ’10 at [email protected]