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NCC 2003 General Assembly Backgrounder:
Issues Underlying Taco Bell, Mt. Olive Pickle Boycotts

November 5, 2003, JACKSON, Miss. - During its annual national meeting here Nov. 4-6, the National Council of Churches General Assembly will have before it actions on several social issues, including proposals that the NCC endorse consumer boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickle companies to put pressure for improvement of wages and living conditions of their suppliers’ farm workers.

Affirmative votes would be especially significant given the NCC’s insistence that boycotts are a measure of last resort. It has been more than 15 years since the NCC endorsed a boycott (May 1988, related to Royal Dutch/Shell’s connections at that time to apartheid South Africa.).

The 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame” exposed the deplorable and often inhumane conditions under which agricultural migrant workers labored to bring food to American tables at low cost and catalyzed improvements. By most accounts the gains that resulted have been lost and conditions of workers have deteriorated. Proponents of the boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive say that in addition to their specific demands, they are seeking attention for the larger, ongoing disgrace of working conditions for farm labors.

Estimates of the number of migrant farm workers in the United States range from 1.5 to more than 2 million. In the growing season, about 300,000 are in Florida and between 100,000 to 200,000 are in North Carolina.

TACO BELL BOYCOTT

In March 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an Immokalee, Florida-based workers’ coalition, called for a national consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products following Taco Bell’s refusal to address exploitation in the fields of its tomato suppliers, particularly those of Six L’s Packing Company, one of the United States’ largest tomato growers.

To date, the top governing bodies of four national religious bodies, including three NCC member denominations - the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (3.5 million members), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (805,000 members) and the United Church of Christ (1.4 million members) - have endorsed the boycott, as has the American Friends Service Committee.

The National Council of Churches - the nation’s leading ecumenical organization whose 36 mainline Protestant, African American, Orthodox and Episcopal member denominations comprise 50 million U.S. Christians in 140,000 local congregations nationwide - would be the largest and broadest religious body to endorse the boycott.

According to U.S. Department of Labor data, the average piece rate paid to tomato harvesters in 1980 was 40 cents per 32-pound bucket. Today, harvesters are paid the same average piece rate, earning less than one-half of what they did 20 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars. At the 40 cent piece rate, workers must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to make $50. Fresh-picked tomatoes are a featured component of many of Taco Bell’s best-selling products.

Taco Bell is owned by Yum! Brands, Inc., the largest fast-food chain in the world. Given the sheer volume of tomatoes Taco Bell buys from Florida-based growers, proponents of the boycott contend, it has the power to bring Six L's and other tomato suppliers to the negotiating table for three-way dialogue with the CIW and help bring about more modern, more equitable labor relations in Florida’s tomato fields. Furthermore, Taco Bell could immediately double the earnings of tomato harvesters by agreeing to pay just one penny more per pound of tomatoes, which would be an important step in redressing workers’ loss of real wages. If this per pound increase were passed on to consumers, a Chalupa would cost about 1/4 of a cent more.

The issues underlying the Taco Bell Boycott have been under study in the NCC since November 2002. Requests from NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar for a meeting with Taco Bell’s President Emil Brolick have gone unanswered to date.

The NCC’s Executive Board in September voted to recommend that the General Assembly endorse the Taco Bell Boycott. The vote was unanimous with six abstentions; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Richard L. Hamm, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who asked that their abstentions be registered because at that time their denominations had not yet spoken on this issue. (Subsequently, in October 2003, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to endorse the boycott.)

The boycott would remain in effect “until such time as Taco Bell:

· convenes serious three-way talks between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representatives of Taco Bell, and their tomato supplies to address exploitation and slavery in the fields, and

· contributes to an immediate increase in farm worker wages through an increase in the per pound rate it pays for tomatoes, and

· works with the CIW, tomato industry representatives and tomato suppliers to establish a code of conduct that would ensure workers’ fundamental labor rights by defining strict wage and working condition standards required of all Taco Bell suppliers.”

In recent weeks, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been recognized by:

§ The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, which has selected Julia Gabriel, Lucas Benitez and Romeo Ramirez, three leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to receive the prestigious 2003 RFK Human Rights Award for their work against slavery in the fields and for the Taco Bell Boycott. Through their work, they have helped liberate more than 1,000 workers held against their will by employers using violence - beatings, pistol-whippings, shootings - and the threat of violence, according to the center. Ms. Gabriel herself is a former captive worker who escaped from a 400-worker slavery ring that operated in the fields of South Carolina and Florida. With the assistance of the CIW, Ms. Gabriel successfully helped prosecute and put her employer behind bars.

§ The September 2003 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, which, in a story on modern-day slavery, put the total number of slaves in the United States at between 100,000 to 150,000 (including farm workers, prostitutes and sweatshop workers) and featured the plight of pickers and the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, describing conditions of abuse and enslavement. Reported the magazine, the CIW has exposed five cases of agricultural slavery in Florida in the past five years. The latest involved 700 slaves.

§ On September 25, 2003, PBS-TV aired “DYING TO LEAVE,” a documentary on trafficking and slavery that featured the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ work and slavery in the tomato fields of Florida in the global context of slavery worldwide.

For more information about the issues underlying the Taco Bell Boycott, see www.pcusa.org/boycott and www.ciw-online.org.

MT. OLIVE PICKLE BOYCOTT

In March 1999, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a union representing farm workers, announced a consumer boycott of the products of Mt. Olive Pickle Company, based in Mt. Olive, N.C., the nation’s largest independent pickle producer and the nation’s second largest processor of pickles and pickle products.

According to FLOC, the consumer boycott was called following unsuccessful attempts to bring the management of Mt. Olive to the table to negotiate improved wages and working conditions for farm workers who produce the cucumbers processed by Mt. Olive. FLOC is seeking to negotiate a contract with the Mt. Olive Pickle Company on behalf of the workers.

The boycott has received the endorsement of more than 300 organizations, including two NCC member communions - the United Church of Christ and the Alliance of Baptists - along with the American Friends Service Committee and two organizations related to the NCC: Agricultural Missions, Inc., and the National Farm Worker Ministry.

The NCC General Assembly first took up the issues at its November 2000 annual meeting. At that time, the Assembly voted its support of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)’s efforts to improve conditions authorized the Executive Board to monitor progress and to endorse the boycott if necessary.

A September 2000 report by Agricultural Missions, Inc., described conditions under which migrant farm laborers work as “very difficult, unhealthy and dangerous. Already low wages have declined over the past two decades, and health and safety standards are not being enforced resulting to illness and injury. Grower provided housing is for the most part substandard and sanitary conditions are often below legal requirements, both in the fields and in living quarters. Child labor laws are frequently ignored on many farms.”

Several meetings with Mt. Olive CEO William Bryan have failed to win agreement from the Mt. Olive Pickle Company to enter negotiations with FLOC. Boycott proponents contend that “contracts providing workers with a voice in the industry and a process to address grievances without fear of firing have proven to be farm workers’ best hope for improving conditions.”

FLOC compiled information from North Carolina in the summer of 2003 that indicates how bad conditions remain for North Carolina’s farm workers, including those who are employed by growers selling to Mt. Olive.

The NCC Executive Board in late September recommended that the General Assembly endorse the Mt. Olive boycott, the effective date to be as soon after January 1, 2004, as determined by the NCC Executive Board - in the spirit of a final effort to win a contract for the farm workers. The vote was unanimous with three abstentions; the ELCA asked that its abstention be registered.

Agricultural Missions’ September 2000 report said, “The conditions in North Carolina are not unique and exist in almost every state that host migrant farm workers. As a group, farm workers are specifically excluded from legal protections afforded other workers in relation to minimum wage, overtime and holiday pay, workmen’s compensation, health insurance and child labor. The minimal standards and protections offered by federal and state agencies often are not enforced.”

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