publix protest color

Local activists bow their heads in prayer while protesting just outside the 34th Street Publix. The supermarket chain has refused to join the Fair Trade Program, making it one of the last companies to do so. Photo by Steven Longmire.

On the border of 34th Street, a group of protesters stood holding hands in a circle, heads bowed in prayer.

The assembly was made up of activists of all ages from a variety of organizations and churches around Gainesville, including Presbyterians, Mennonites, Unitarians and Quakers. The protesters, who also represented various interfaith organizations and student groups, began the event by praying aloud together.

The protest was part of an ongoing series of demonstrations against Publix that kicked off in October. One of the leaders of the group, Beto Soto, is an organizer with the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice. Soto made sure to make the group’s intentions clear.

“We’re not here to block entrances or be disorderly,” Soto said. “We’re here to have a conversation.”

That conversation is about tomatoes. More specifically, it is a conversation about the working conditions of the people who harvest them. For decades, the migrant farmworkers who pick the tomatoes have had to put up with atrocities like forced labor and wage theft.

To address this, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has created the Fair Food Program, an industrywide system to protect and preserve the rights of farm workers, who, because of their status as undocumented immigrants, are often at a disadvantage and are vulnerable to the whims of farm owners. Publix, as the largest employee-owned company in America, is one of the few remaining companies to refuse to join the program.

“Publix is our pride and joy here in Florida,” Soto said. “It’s where I go and buy my groceries every week. Sadly enough, they are not doing their part.”

Currently, farm workers in Florida are paid nearly the same rate as they were in 1978 and would need to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes per day just to earn minimum wage. Workers go without overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation or pension. More extreme cases have involved sexual abuse and forced labor.

Over the past decade, Florida has successfully prosecuted 14 slavery operations involving farmworkers, including one in Alachua County in 2010. Many workers have expired visas, and contractors use the threat of deportation to get away with the crimes.

Workers go without overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation or pension. More extreme cases have involved sexual abuse and forced labor.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 to address many of these types of issues, but it failed to include the agriculture sector. Since then, no legislation has been introduced at the state or federal level to address problems regarding farmworkers.

Workers in Immokalee took the matter into their own hands when the CIW created the Fair Food Program (FFP) in 2011. A model for worker-driven social responsibility, the program involves the growers, the retail buyers and the farmworkers themselves. The retailers pay a small premium, one penny per pound of tomatoes, which goes toward increasing farmworker wages.

In addition to the wage increase, the FFP ensures better working conditions on the farms in four ways: worker-to-worker education, a 24-hour complaint hotline, a system of auditing and the use of the market as a form of enforcement.

Workers who visit the farms educate those who lack an understanding of the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which outlines what is and is not acceptable to put up with on the farms. Once the code is a part of the farm, the workers are equipped to share their knowledge of the program with each new farmer. With the 24-hour hotline in place, workers also have a safe and reliable method of reporting breaches in the code, whereas before the only authorities they could turn to could counter with the threat of deportation.

The FFP also includes the Fair Food Standards Council, which was created with the knowledge that not all workers still feel safe enough to report abuses. The council audits farms by studying wage and hour records, while inspectors go to the fields to see the working environment firsthand. When abuses occur, the enforcement operates through the market — if a farm fails to meet the standards, it can no longer do business with the Fair Food retailers.

The enforcement aspect is essential to the program. Without the threat of losing buyers, the farmers have no incentive to change. The CIW has teamed up with student and faith groups to call on businesses to join the FFP. In Gainesville, the Coalition of Hispanics Integrating Spanish Speakers Through Advocacy and Service along with the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice (IAIJ) have been crucial in raising awareness of the issue.

Richard MacMaster is a member of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, which held the first meeting of the IAIJ. MacMaster has been a key member of the organization since the beginning, and is now heavily involved in supporting the FFP. Clergymen and rabbis hold protests and fasts to raise awareness, often carrying signs with Bible verses like Micah 6:8, which reads: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.”

“It’s easy to get faith communities on board,” MacMaster said. “Almost all religious traditions have a strong component of justice. It was true of the Civil Rights Movement. The authority was much more likely to listen to the fact that this guy we’re hustling off to jail is actually a bishop, which means bad PR.”

The methods used by the CIW along with these student and faith groups have been successful. The Florida Tomato Growers Association and a number of companies have joined the FFP since its creation. The list of companies involved includes McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Whole Foods and, most recently, Walmart.

Publix’s unwillingness to join the program, however, is detrimental in Florida, the corporation’s home state.

“The combined purchasing power of all of these companies that have joined has shrunk the market for slave tomatoes,” Soto said. “The small amount of farms that are using slaves for their crops still have a market through Publix.”

Publix has justified their resistance to joining the program by noting their history of giving to charity.

But the CIW wants justice, not charity. When the group of protesters stood outside the Publix in Gainesville this past November, they made thier message clear.

Publix’s unwillingness to join the program, however, is detrimental in Florida, the corporation’s home state.

They offered a letter outlining the need for the FFP; a plate filled with pennies; and a turkey to emphasize the importance of Thanksgiving as a time of gratitude for the workers who provide the food.

They also brought tickets to the Hippodrome’s premiere of “Food Chains,” a documentary produced by Eva Longoria that outlines the history of the FFP. Publix took the letter but declined to accept any of the gifts.

Esther Wallace, a community organizer for Action Network, another key Gainesville interfaith organization, has been at other protests of Publix in the past. She was disheartened by Publix’s reaction, but said it was an improvement because the police were called in previous efforts.

“Most of us are Publix customers, and they should respect the feelings of their base,” Wallace said. “Its disappointing, but not at all shocking.”

Soto remains steadfast in his demands and optimistic that Publix will come around to meeting their claims.

“Publix simply needs to understand that this problem should not exist in the 21st century,” Soto said.  “The way forward is to follow the example of businesses that understand the solution is the Fair Food Program.”