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NCC Endorses Consumer Boycotts
of Taco Bell, Mt. Olive Pickle Products
Council is Largest, Broadest Religious Group to Endorse the Boycotts
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November 6, 2003, JACKSON, Miss. – The National Council of Churches General Assembly today (Nov. 6) endorsed consumer boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickle products, both effective immediately, to put pressure for improvement of wages and working conditions of their suppliers’ farm workers. It is the largest and broadest U.S. religious body to join the boycotts.
The National Council of Churches is the nation’s leading ecumenical organization. Its 36 mainline Protestant, African American, Orthodox and Episcopal member denominations comprise 50 million U.S. Christians in 140,000 local congregations nationwide. The actions came during the Nov. 4-6 annual meeting of the General Assembly, the NCC’s highest legislative body, made up of official delegates from the member denominations.
Given the NCC’s insistence that boycotts are a measure of last resort, the affirmative votes on the two boycotts are especially significant. 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.).
TACO BELL BOYCOTT: Click here for text of resolution
The General Assembly’s action joins the National Council of Churches to a national consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products, called in March 2001 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an Immokalee, Fla.-based workers’ coalition. The Coalition launched the boycott 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.
The NCC joins the top governing bodies of three of its 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) – along with the American Friends Service Committee in endorsing the boycott.
“Anytime a Christian community comes together and seeks to exercise economic justice in this way, it is because there is a very serious injustice that cannot be resolved in any other way,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who noted that the Taco Bell boycott resolution came to the General Assembly at the request of the PC(USA).
Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a Florida farm worker and member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, described farm workers’ low wages and lack of any benefits such as health insurance or overtime pay.
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.
“And in the most extreme circumstances we find modern day slavery,” said Chavez, speaking in Spanish through an intepreter. “By modern day slavery I mean people forced to work at gunpoint. To confront this situation we’ve had work strikes, marches, hunger strikes for up to 30 days – and what we’ve realized is that the agricultural industry is not interested in us. We’ve realized that the only way to achieve justice for thousands of farm workers is to reach up the ladder (to those) profiting from farm workers’ labor and poverty.” That’s where Taco Bell comes in, he said.
“We are not saying Taco Bell is guilty of slavery,” Chavez said, “but when we ask Taco Bell, ‘can you guarantee to us those tomatoes weren’t picked by slave labor,’ the answer is ‘no.’ That’s precisely because they have never paid attention to the workers who make their profits possible. That’s why I am here today.”
The Rev. Noelle Damico, a United Church of Christ minister working with the PC(USA) on the boycott, spoke to the question, “Why Taco Bell?”
“Taco Bell is purchasing from one of the lowest paying suppliers in Florida, Six L’s Packing Company. Taco Bell uses a high percentage of fresh-picked, that means hand-picked, tomatoes in its products. They are owned by Yum! Brands, Inc., the largest fast-food chain in the world, which is in a good position to affect change in the wider agricultural industry.”
Boycotts, she said, are a “serious tool companies understand and to which they respond. They are a way for customers and the church to say we care that food is not only fast but fair and respects the human rights of the workers.”
The Taco Bell boycott is to 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.
MT. OLIVE PICKLE BOYCOTT: Click here for text of resolution
Lydia Veliko of the United Church of Christ brought forward the resolution on the Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott on behalf of the NCC Executive Board, and National Farm Worker Ministry Executive Director Virginia Nesmith spoke to it.
“Casting our option with the poor is our best action as people of faith,” she said. “It’s heartening to me to see two farm worker situations raised up at this particular Assembly. The people who stoop for tomatoes and cucumbers, climb for the apples and peaches support our huge agribusiness and put food on our tables. They ask us not for charity but solidarity.”
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.”
Letiticia Zavala, a former farm worker and organizing director for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee based in Plant City, Fla., said she has worked in both with and without a union contract. A contract has a mechanism for workplace grievances, but in North Carolina “that system is not in place. Workers can’t complain. We have instances of indentured servitude, and of employers who deduct for rent and transport leaving workers only $30 to survive on at the end of the week. Unions are the best way to go.”
The Assembly endorsed the Taco Bell Boycott unanimously, with five abstentions, and the Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott with two abstentions.
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