Burger King Lese Majesty

for farm workers’ rights

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Originally published in New Ground 116, January — February, 2008.

by Bob Roman

If you want to use the tired metaphor of war to describe the efforts of Florida tomato pickers to improve their lot then you would probably say the battle is currently in the air – though that could change. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) brought together over fifteen hundred supporters, including many public figures, to demonstrate outside of the Burger King corporate headquarters in Miami, Florida, at the end of November. This was to pressure Burger King to agree to the same additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked that other fast food vendors have agreed to. In a counter move, with rather more than just publicity consequences, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange announced that it would forbid its members from participating in such third party agreements. After all, why would farm workers need the CIW when the growers had their very own accrediting agency to certify best practices, including no abuse of workers?

This would have been an effective maneuver in the publicity dogfight but that it was just in time for another slavery bust. Three Florida farm workers, after having been beaten and chained for a year, broke free and made it to authorities. Oops. Then came the release a new book by John Bowe, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. On top of this, CIW was awarded the 2007 Anti-Slavery award from Anti-Slavery International , a British-based organization established as part of the abolition movement in 1839. Florida tomatoes, anyone?

Here in Chicago, Northwestern University’s Students for Economic Justice organized a picket outside of an Evanston Burger King in solidarity with CIW’s Miami demonstration at the end of November. And, it should be noted, just in time for the first significant snow of the season. Then on Saturday, December 22nd, the ad hoc group in support of CIW here in Chicago organized caroling on State Street. If Evanston during a snowstorm was a tough house, State Street right before Christmas was worse. But we sang and distributed several hundred flyers. The Chicago folks have since adopted a name, Chicago Community for Fair Food. A web site, http://www.chicagofairfood.org , is under construction, along with a MySpace site, http://myspace.com/chicagofairfood . We’ve also done some tabling in Oak Park.

Why is all this the “air war?” It’s simply that the real power of the union is in the workplace, on the ground. Contracts, labor laws, and community campaigns can bolster or weaken that power, but they are no substitute. The CIW is pursuing an “air war” because, at present, they must. But ultimately they will have authority in the fields or they will be naught.

Post Script: Burger King eventually got with the program.