On Friday, around twenty-five people gathered outside of the Burger King restaurant on Pearl Street in downtown Grand Rapids to demand that Burger King pay more for the tomatoes that it uses in its products. The protestors leafleted people entering the restaurant and marched in front of the store while holding signs reading “One Penny More,” “Exploitation King,” and “Fair Food Now.”
Shortly after the protest began, the manager of the Burger King came out and told some of the protestors that it was a locally owned franchise and that he did not understand why they were targeting the restaurant. He was handed a leaflet and told about the reason for the protest, but said that there was “nothing he can do about it.”
The protest was held in solidarity with a march to Burger King’s corporate headquarters that took place on Friday in Miami. The march was part of an ongoing effort by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) demanding that Burger King pay more the tomatoes that its restaurants use. The CIW represents farm workers who pick tomatoes in the fields of South Florida, some of which are eventually sold to Burger King. While the CIW has been successful in getting Yum Brands (Taco Bell, A&W, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Long John Silver’s) and McDonald’s to recognize the exploitation of farm workers growing their tomatoes and agree to pay more, Burger King has refused. Instead, Burger King has aligned itself with the tomato growers and has launched a public relations effort designed to undercut the agreements with other restaurants. Burger King CEO John Chidsey has gone as far as to claim that farm workers do not live in poverty.
However, the CIW has been active in documenting and addressing exploitation in the fields, even uncovering cases of slavery. The CIW asserts that farm workers work in “sweatshop conditions.” Farm workers picking tomatoes are paid sub-poverty wages (roughly $10,000/year, according to the USDOL), have not received raises in nearly 30 years, workers must pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day, and are have no labor rights (including overtime pay or the right to organize).
Tomorrow, a protest is planned outside of a Burger King restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) protest at Burger King’s corporate headquarters. The CIW’s efforts targeting Burger King and the solidarity protest in Grand Rapids are part of an ongoing effort by the CIW to improve conditions for farm workers picking tomatoes in Florida. Previously the CIW won concessions from Taco Bell and McDonalds including agreements to pay more for tomatoes. In advance of the protest, Burger King has gained some attention in the media–including in the Grand Rapids Press–for its efforts to undercut the agreements. This strategy reportedly includes a public relations effort designed to convince the public that farm workers are well paid along with an effort to pressure growers not to cooperate with McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
The statement announcing the protest in Grand Rapids states:
“The Coalition of Immokolee Workers is staging a protest at Burger King’s headquarters in Miami, Florida on November 30. Here in Grand Rapids we are committed to supporting their fight for a living wage and will be holding a solidarity protest at the downtown Grand Rapids Burger King ( 410 Pearl St NW, Grand Rapids, MI). It will begin at 4:00 sharp and last for about two hours. Please bring signs, bullhorns, and get ready to make some noise for justice! Here are some:
* Tomato pickers make, on average, $10,000 a year
* Pickers are paid virtually the same per-bucket piece rate (about 45 cents per 32 lb bucket) today as they were in 1980. At this rate, workers have to pick 25 TONS of tomatoes just to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hr day.
* Farmworkers in Florida have no right to overtime pay and no right to organize or bargain collectively. In the most extreme cases, farmworkers face conditions of modern-day slavery.
BUT, remember that people like us can and have made a difference. Both Taco Bell and McDonalds have agreed to the CIW’s requests after pressure from their customers. Let’s tell Burger King how much justice means so us!”
In the Grand Rapids area, there is a history of organizing in solidarity with the CIW. At Grand Valley State University (GVSU) during the campaign against Taco Bell, the campus’ chapter of Students Against Sweatshops was active from 2002 through the end in 2005.
A video providing a short overview of the campaign nationally and its future was recently produced by the CIW: