Ringing the Taco Bell

Activists ask Irvine-based quesadilla kings to raise tomato pickers pay

The guy behind the Taco Bell counter—Javier, according to the red chile-shaped name tag pinned to his purplish company-issue shirt—seemed puzzled when I asked him if he knew about the boycott sweeping the nation and the demonstration that is coming to town

"No," he said, then shrugged. "I don't know."

I tried to explain, but I got a little nervous—there were other people in line behind me—and probably talked a little too fast.

"You know, the boycott about the tomatoes?" I asked. "Well, I mean the tomato pickers, actually—the ones in Florida who have to pick something like two tons of tomatoes to earn $50? And so now there's going to be a huge rally in their support? It's scheduled for Sept. 24 at Taco Bell corporate headquarters, right here in Irvine. Because Taco Bell puts those tomatoes in its food? And lots of people believe the tomato pickers deserve more money. Have you heard about all that?"

Javier was silent. "You want extra tomatoes?" he asked, uncertainly.

No, the standard sprinkle of diced tomatoes would be enough for my order—more than enough, considering my after-dinner destination was only a few blocks down Alton Parkway at the Irvine United Church of Christ childcare center, where a group of activists convened a Taco Bell Protest Organizing Meeting. Sitting in a confined space with a Burrito Supreme on my breath would have been in bad taste, anyway—it's kind of par for whatever course you order from the Taco Bell menu—but there was no need to pile on an extra portion of impoliteness among this small gathering of true believers.

And it was a very small meeting—one of their smallest so far, with only seven people, although several regulars were absent with good excuses. One was in Los Angeles being interviewed about the Taco Bell protest on KPFK, the lefty Pacifica network radio station. A couple were in Santa Monica, handing out Taco Bell protest leaflets at the Ozomatli concert. One woman's car broke down. Another had an English class. Or maybe that was the same woman. Those who did show—among them a biology major from UC Irvine, a Teamster, members of the rock band Over the Counter Intelligence, a man from the Interfaith Committee to Aid Farmworkers, and a student from Saddleback High School—sat at a small table on tiny plastic chairs normally used by the preschoolers in the church childcare classroom, surrounded by watercolor finger paintings and building blocks. Yes, it was a very small meeting.

At first, their cause—the wages of migrant, mostly immigrant farm workers in Immokalee, Florida—seemed rather obscure and diminutive, too, but maybe that was just the minimizing perspective of distance. A labor fight in a small town on the other side of the country—Immokalee is an unincorporated settlement with a population that fluctuates with the harvesting season and means "my home" in the language of the Seminole Indians—well, it can just seem so far away.

But the high profile of the Taco Bell headquarters building in Irvine gives the issue up-close immediacy. Taco Bell reported sales of more than $5.2 billion in 1999, while its parent corporation, Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. (which owns Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken), reported system-wide sales of more than $22 billion that year.

"Taco Bell's profits are directly linked to the exploitation and sub-poverty wages of farm workers," says Kate Pham, a 23-year-old student at Irvine Valley College who is helping organize the last in a series of cross-country demonstrations called the Taco Bell Truth Tour. "Because Taco Bell headquarters are here, because the executives live among us, we have an amazing opportunity to support the struggle of farm workers."

Taco Bell is one of the biggest buyers of tomatoes from Six L's Packing Co. Inc., the Immokalee-based company that still pays its workers the same piece rate they earned in 1978—about 40 cents for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. At this rate, workers must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to make $50. According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), if Taco Bell paid Six L's Packing one cent more per pound of tomatoes, the earnings of the farm workers could be doubled.

"People in Orange County are in a unique position to apply direct pressure to the executives at Taco Bell, who have the power to make this one cent raise happen," says Pham.

So far, Taco Bell has declined to act, portraying the dispute as a matter between Six L's Packing and its workforce.

But the CIW is determined to ratchet up the pressure. On April 1, it called for a national boycott of Taco Bell. On Sept. 13, an entourage including several farm workers will begin a 10-city bus tour from Tampa to Irvine to attract attention to their plight. The tour stops in Los Angeles on Sept. 23 and in Irvine on Sept. 24. Plans for the finale in Irvine include a 10 a.m. march from Santa Ana Memorial Park to Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine. A day of demonstrations, music, food and speeches will follow until 5 p.m.

And that's where the meeting in the the United Church of Christ preschool came in. They're working on marching permits, conflict-resolution training, entertainment, food, daycare, medical care—and, most important, involving unions, schools, churches, civic groups and everyday citizens.

It's pretty basic stuff. "We'll announce it onstage from our show at Chain Reaction," volunteers Matt Martinez of Over the Counter Intelligence. "And we'll get the opening act to do it, too. We got them the gig, so they've gotta do it. You'd be surprised how fast word-of-mouth spreads in situations like that."

Who knows? Maybe Javier will be in the audience.

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