Thirty Seconds Over Burger King

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Originally published in New Ground 119, July — August, 2008.

by Bob Roman

On May 23rd, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Burger King held a joint news conference in Washington, DC, to announce an agreement to directly pay workers who pick the tomatoes that Burger King buys an additional penny per pound. The agreement goes beyond previous agreements in that Burger King is also offering the employers of the tomato pickers an additional half cent per pound to cover the additional payroll taxes and administrative expenses.

The agreement also establishes zero tolerance guidelines for certain unlawful activities, requiring immediate termination from the Burger King supply chain of any grower in violation, and provides for farm worker participation in the monitoring of growers’ compliance with the company’s vendor code of conduct.

While the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has not dropped its opposition to buyer / CIW agreements, it has dropped its policy, adopted last year, of fining any member of the cooperative who participates in such agreements.

The relatively quick collapse of Burger King’s opposition to CIW was a consequence of activist pressure, changed circumstances, and most especially Burger King’s amazing talent for shooting itself in the foot.

Among other things, the company was revealed to have an ongoing relationship with an unlicensed private detective agency when it attempted to use the service to spy on CIW and its allies. A vice-president of the firm (not top management, according to Burger King) was fired when it came to light that he was using his daughter’s email accounts to post scurrilous attacks on CIW and CIW supporters.

Circumstances had changed from the Taco Bell and McDonalds campaigns as well. With Democrats now in control of Congress, the Senate (where Senators Bernie Sanders and Dick Durbin deserve considerable credit) was able to hold hearings that help put the campaign in the public spotlight in a manner distinctly unfavorable to Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. Another case of farm labor slavery in Florida and growing editorial sympathy among the news media most especially in Florida also helped.

Activist pressure was also a factor. While the Burger King campaign never developed the national coherence of the two previous campaigns (particularly in Chicago), CIW was able to exert some credible pressure in Florida where both the Burger King HQ and CIW are located.

CIW currently has a campaign that is directed at bringing Chipolte Mexican Grill into an agreement. This is yet another fast food chain that boasts of using its buying power to “revolutionize the way America grows and gathers its food.” There are grocery chains that make similar claims, and CIW has already begun pressuring Whole Foods to come to agreement. Wal-Mart and Subway have also been mentioned as possible near future targets. The Student / Farmworker Alliance, one of CIW’s allied organizations, is planning a conference (an “enceuntro”) in Immokalee on September 18 through 21, and it’s reasonable to expect the CIW’s priorities will be settled by then.