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At Lent, NCC Takes Up Concerns of Florida Farm Workers, Helps Persuade Workers to End Hunger Strike Outside Taco Bell Headquarters

March 7, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- As the Christian season of Lenten prayer and fasting begins, the National Council of Churches (NCC) is requesting special prayers for farm workers "who have been made poor and vulnerable by fast-food and agricultural industries."

The Council further asks churches everywhere to study farm worker issues, especially by focusing on the current struggle for just wages and working conditions of Florida farm workers who pick tomatoes that go into Taco Bell products.

The Lenten call grew out of the Council’s support for some 50 Florida farm workers and scores of their supporters who conducted a hunger strike Feb. 24 - March 5 outside Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, Calif. The workers’ aim was to pressure the company to enter into negotiations with them and with the Florida growers who supply Taco Bell with tomatoes.

The farm workers belong to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in southwest Florida, which two years ago mounted a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products. The 50 workers traveled three days by bus to Irvine, where they fasted outdoors, often in inclement weather. In the second week of the fast, conditions had clearly taken a great toll on participants.

In response to pleas from religious leaders worried about the fasters’ health, the workers ended their fast in its tenth day at a 10:00 a.m. Ash Wednesday service at the hunger strike site. As a part of the service, the workers broke bread with religious leaders.

The previous day, top officials of the National Council of Churches wrote to the workers, alarmed that one had already been hospitalized and others were on the brink of collapse. "With appreciation for your sacrifice, we now request that you allow the church to take on your concerns in our Lenten journey," the Council’s letter said. "We ask you to break your fast, even as we begin ours."

Signing the letter were Elenie Huszagh, Esq., NCC President; Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas Hoyt, NCC President Elect; and Dr. Bob Edgar, NCC General Secretary.

The workers received similar letters from the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the National Farm Ministry, and from Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles.

Excerpts from the letters were read at the Ash Wednesday service with the workers. During the service, a delegation of six religious leaders carried the letters to Taco Bell headquarters. The delegation included the Rev. Noelle Damico of the Presbyterian Church (USA), who also served as the NCC’s designated representative at the fast.

Accompanying the group were the nurse who had attended the fasters all week and who carried a letter citing medical and humanitarian concerns related to the fast, two children from Irvine with construction paper drawings urging Mr. Brolick to speak with workers, and two farm workers who brought thousands of postcards from Immokalee farm workers.

Finding the glass doors at Taco Bell headquarters locked, the Rev. Damico knocked and asked security guards if the delegation could personally present the letters to Mr. Brolick. The security guards denied that request and also refused permission for the delegation to enter the building in order to leave the letters in the lobby of Taco Bell offices.

The Rev. Damico then got on her knees and asked if the leaders could slide their letters under the door. Given an "OK" by the guards, the religious leaders knelt one by one, slipping their letters under the door as they announced the names of the senders. In turn, the children slid their pictures through. Finally, the workers fed as many cards as they could under the door, leaving a large box of post cards at the entranceway.

The group prayed, returned to the fast site, and, along with the rest of the congregation, received the Imposition of Ashes, and prayed for reconciliation and justice. Following the service the congregation moved to a nearby Catholic center for a joyous meal of bean soup, fruit and tortillas.

Both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, which already have endorsed the Taco Bell boycott, are members of the National Council of Churches. As such they have been instrumental in bringing the issue before the NCC’s 36 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations and communions, to which some 50 million Christians belong.

On February 25, the Council’s Executive Board, meeting in New York City, adopted a resolution expressing solidarity with the CIW fasters and calling on Taco Bell "to enter into serious dialogue with the CIW."

Dr. Edgar designated the Rev. Damico to deliver a copy of the resolution to Mr. Emil Brolick, president of Taco Bell, at his office in Irvine. The Rev. Damico attempted to do so but was rebuffed by Taco Bell, which cited security concerns and Mr. Brolick’s busy schedule. Taco Bell’s representative directed the NCC to submit its request in writing and send it certified mail to Mr. Brolick.

On February 27 Dr. Edgar sent the resolution to Mr. Brolick via an overnight carrier, along with a request that Mr. Brolick meet with him and with heads of NCC member communions regarding the fasters’ concerns. To date, Dr. Edgar has not received a reply.

In addition to the resolution, the NCC Executive Board has initiated its own study of conditions leading to the boycott and has called on NCC member communions to do the same. This study process will prepare the Board for discussion, at its October 2003 meeting, on whether to propose that the NCC’s General Assembly endorse the boycott. The General Assembly, which is the NCC’s highest policymaking body, is scheduled to meet November 10-13, 2003, in Jackson, Miss.

At issue is the fact that farm workers are earning sub-poverty wages for picking tomatoes that are used in Taco Bell products. According to the Department of Labor, their wages (ranging from 40 to 50 cents per 32-pound bucket) have not changed in 20 years.

Because agricultural workers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, the growers that employ these workers are under no legal obligation to dialogue with them. Therefore, the workers are seeking to establish "supply chain responsibility" by pressuring Taco Bell, a major purchaser of southwest Florida tomatoes, to ensure that its suppliers deal fairly with workers.

CIW is calling for three-way negotiations among the company, the growers and the farm workers. Because Taco Bell has refused to intervene or to accept responsibility for the manner in which its food is produced, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has called for a boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products.

Before calling for the boycott, the farm workers tried for more than six years to establish dialogue with growers, at various times engaging in work stoppages, a 30-day hunger strike, a 230-mile march, and appeals to Florida state government. When these measures yielded no results, the CIW turned to Taco Bell for assistance early in 2000.

After a year of silence from Taco Bell, the CIW called for the boycott of Taco Bell in February 2001. In a subsequent meeting with worker representatives, Taco Bell and its parent company, YUM! Brands, maintained that they would not intervene in what they described as a private labor matter between suppliers and their workers.

For more information on issues behind the Taco Bell boycott, visit the Web sites of: Coalition of Immokalee Workers www.ciw-online.org, the Presbyterian Church (USA) www.pcusa.org/boycott,   the United Church of Christ www.ucc.org and the National Farm Worker Ministry www.nfwm.org.

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