Forty-five Florida tomato workers, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), were lovin’ the solidarity from student, labor, community and religious groups in St. Louis and Chicago rallies last week. The events were part of the workers’ McDonald’s Truth Tour — “The Real Rights Tour” — that is traveling to 17 cities across the nation, fighting for living wages and worker rights.
Nearly 100 people rallied outside a St. Louis McDonald’s on March 28. Earlier, tomato picker Rolando Sales told St. Louis University students, “We are exploited every day. We live in extreme poverty. Animals are treated better than us.”
Sales said he picks 125 buckets of tomatoes a day for $50. Every bucket, he said, weighs 32 pounds. “We work seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Tomato pickers work in “modern day slavery,” Sales said. “We are talking about workers forced to work. Their paychecks are stolen from them. They are abused in the fields. Some are beaten.”
In Chicago hundreds rallied outside the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s April 1. College students joined as part of a National Student-Labor Week of Action.
A tomato worker told the World about his living and working conditions. “Ten people live in a four-person trailer because we don’t have enough to pay rent,” he said. “The people who benefit from our sweat are big corporations like McDonald’s. When you get sick, you get fired. You get sick from the pesticides.”
“This is a workers’ struggle, a human rights struggle,” AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff told the crowd. “The right to organize, to have dignity and respect, a livable wage for the future of our kids, is a human right for all workers. This kind of fight represents the heart of the labor movement and that’s why the AFL-CIO is here in solidarity.”
Most restaurant and fast food chains have code of conduct agreements for farm animals (to make sure that they are treated humanely) but not for farm workers. The tomato workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and have no overtime pay, health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation or other benefits.
Many are undocumented immigrants. “The contractor doesn’t ask for your papers. They don’t care,” Sales told the St. Louis students. “We live in a trailer without hot water or air conditioning. These are the conditions we face without a voice.”
But the growers are just part of the problem, he said. “The corporations are responsible. They are the ones that have the power. They are the ones that buy the product at the cheapest price possible. They treat us like machines. When we can’t work anymore, they throw us away. They make millions in profits, while we live in poverty.”
CIW organized a successful four-year national boycott of Taco Bell and its parent company Yum Brands. Taco Bell agreed to establish a code of conduct agreement and guarantee farm worker participation in protection of their rights. Taco Bell is directly contributing to an increase in tomato pickers’ wages. CIW hopes to establish the same agreement with McDonald’s.
Roberta Wood contributed to this story