Saturday 4 June 2011

Victory Over Taco Bell

Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) is a national network of students and youth organizing with farmworkers to eliminate sweatshop conditions and modern-day slavery in the fields. They work in alliance with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based, membership-led organization of mostly Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian low-wage workers. Their work has shown that when people stand up together, Goliath can be defeated and a different world is possible.

farmworkers + allies win historic, four-year boycott!

At the onset of the 21st century, farmworkers in the US toil in abysmal conditions for sub-poverty annual wages without basic rights and protections such as the right to organize, the right to overtime pay, or benefits of any kind. While fast-food corporations and grocery mega-chains report ever increasing sales and profit margins, the farmworkers responsible for picking the fruits and vegetables receive piece rates that have not changed significantly in three decades. In the most extreme cases, workers face modern-day slavery.

Amidst a climate of fear and violence, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – a grassroots community organization of mostly Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian farmworkers – began organizing to confront these sweatshop conditions in the fields of Florida. After several years, the CIW began to analyze the role of the fast-food industry, with its vast purchasing power and enormous demand for fruits and vegetables, in driving down farmworker wages. Spotlighting the often invisible link between the fast-food industry and large Florida-based growers, the CIW launched the first-ever farmworker boycott of a fast-food corporation against Taco Bell on April 1, 2001.

What began as a local struggle in a remote Florida town quickly expanded into a national, worker-led movement over the course of the four-year boycott. In March 2005, the CIW – with tremendous support from youth, faith, labor and community allies – reached an unprecedented agreement with Taco Bell, forcing the corporation to take responsibility for the conditions faced by farmworkers who pick its tomatoes. The agreement established a partnership between Yum Brands, Taco Bell's parent company, and the CIW, setting several important precedents for real social responsibility in the fast-food industry.
Among those precedents, Taco Bell agreed to pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes it buys from Florida growers, an increase that could nearly double workers' sub-poverty wages, and to establish the first-ever enforceable code of conduct for US agricultural suppliers. The boycott victory not only represents concrete gains in both the area of wages and farmworkers' fundamental labor rights but also lays the groundwork for broad changes to come, not just for farmworkers but for all low-wage workers who face exploitative conditions in the fast-food industry's supply chain.

For corporations ranging from Nike to Taco Bell, from Urban Outfitters to McDonald's, image is everything. Because of this obsession with branding, Taco Bell spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on campaigns to define its products as hip, exciting, and edgy in the eyes of young consumers. The reach of this aggressive marketing into the lives of young people is deep. Taco Bell's website boasts that 147 million people, about half of the US population, see a Taco Bell commercial at least once a week.

Indeed, a sly Chihuahua taught millions how to convey their affection for the company. But the addition of a two-letter word in Taco Bell’s heavily-financed maxim radically subverted the message. “Yo quiero Taco Bell” became “Yo no quiero Taco Bell" on campuses, at community centres, and in the streets at protests and rallies across the country. Taco Bell learned that the underestimation of its target market was a costly mistake as a decentralized solidarity network spread from Florida to over 300 colleges and 50 high schools across the country. Young people disrupted Taco Bell’s control of its carefully crafted image, organizing educational events and direct actions, participating in cross-country tours, and conjuring national media attention from Democracy Now! to the Washington Post.

What's more, students actively organized to cut contracts between their schools and Taco Bell. By the time Taco Bell ultimately caved to the CIW's demands, students at 25 colleges and high schools had "Booted the Bell" from campus. This incredible wave of student activism was a key factor leading to the CIW's victory. At the time the boycott ended, more than twenty additional campaigns were underway on campuses from Texas to Maine to Idaho. “We were part of winning one of the largest victories against corporate greed and exploitation that our generation has ever seen—the end of the Taco Bell Boycott and justice for the farmworkers of Immokalee—and we are just getting started,” said Melody Gonzalez, a Notre Dame student who worked to successfully Boot the Bell from that campus.

Many students were completely new to social justice activism, and reasons for participation in the boycott varied. Some were drawn to the campaign because of its ties to the global justice movement and analysis around corporate globalization. Others had more personal reasons. According to Denise Rodriguez, a University of Texas - San Antonio student and member of San Anto MEXA, "As a daughter of a migrant worker, the thought of tolerating the presence of an institution similar to the one that oppressed my mother and kept her from continuing her education appalled me. It would have been a slap in my mother's face – as well as mine – to have Taco Bell on the campus where I am continuing my education, at least until Taco Bell steps up and truly recognizes the human rights of the workers who put the tomatoes in its tacos."

Between April 2001 and March 2005, nine national student organizations officially endorsed the Taco Bell boycott, including 180 Movement for Democracy and Education; Campus Greens; Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA); Student Environmental Action Coalition; Student/Farmworker Alliance; Student Peace Action Network; Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations; Student Labor Action Project; and United Students Against Sweatshops.

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