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Why fight sustainability? Why fight fair food?

I'm an active and enthusiastic supporter of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In fact, I'll be joining them in another protest this week, seeking just one penny more per pound for tomato harvesters. I'm among thousands of consumers (the word fits when talking about food) who can't understand why grocers like Publix and Trader Joe's aren't willing to join a movement - as McDonald's and Taco Bell have done - to do right by farm workers.

This article in Sustainable Business Forum explains what's going on. Quotable:

In my last Sustainable Leadership post, I shared a bit about the struggle between migrant tomato pickers, represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and two companies: Trader Joe’s and Publix Supermarkets. Both of these companies are, to various extents, beloved brands that have cultivated reputations as highly ethical.

…Which would make one think that, when asked to pay just one penny more per pound for tomatoes, a penny that will be passed directly on to the pickers, these companies would be happy to do it. Imagine the public relations coup such a decision would bring: “Trader Joe’s and Publix Both Eager To Do The Right Thing” the headline might read. Instead, the headline as it stands is closer to: “What Are Trader Joe’s And Publix Thinking?”

What indeed? Let’s take a step back from the press releases of both sides so we can lay bare the facts.

America’s agricultural pickers are among the very poorest of our working poor. Many of these workers are migrants, the vast majority foreign-born. Their poverty and their often-undocumented status mean that they are underrepresented politically. When labor protection laws were passed in the 1930s, farm workers were intentionally excluded. They remain unable to legally form unions for collective bargaining with employers. These workers are paid per pound picked, so they are also unprotected by minimum wage laws. The employers of these workers are the farm owners, the growers. The restaurants and grocers who buy the tomatoes and sell them to the public are not their employers.

The article continues:


The struggle we see today, between the CIW on one side, Publix and Trader Joe’s on the other, is the result of this creativity. Basically, the CIW circumvented their employers and has been leveraging public outrage to effect change. The growers might not care what the public thinks of them, because they don’t sell anything to the public: they sell their goods to other companies. But Taco Bell (owned by Yum! Brands) cared. So the CIW waged a public relations campaign to pressure Taco Bell to pay an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they bought. After a struggle, Taco Bell relented.

So too did McDonald’s. Then Burger King. Then Whole Foods.* Then, finally, the growers relented, and signed on to the CIW’s plan to pass that penny along from the buyers to the pickers.

Now it’s Trader Joe’s and Publix’s turn in the spotlight. And even though these two companies are publicly committed to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), they have fallen into the familiar pattern of resistance shown by their predecessors.

Even my most laissez faire, politically conservative acquaintances are shocked by the positions of Trader Joe’s and Publix in this matter. “It’s only a penny!” one remarked the other day. Another surprised me by saying, “This is so black and white! What’s the problem?”

Part of "people power" means that when governments fail and when corporate boards of directors and owners fail, people like us need to step forward and - using our purchasing power - help people do the right thing. Call it fair trade, ethical buying, fair food ... but let's support it, and urge others to join us.