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Photo by Jack GouldIn a televised speech from the Oval Office on Sept. 11, President George W. Bush idealistically described the moment as "a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace."
That night, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) suspended the Taco Bell Truth Tour that was to have begun Sept. 13. Farmworkers participating in the 10-city journey from Tampa to the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine hoped to draw attention to their abysmal pay—about $25 per ton—for picking the tomatoes used in the company's food. But they opted not to follow through with the demonstration "in respect for the thousands of innocent people who lost their lives so horribly in the tragic events of Sept. 11," according to a hurriedly prepared statement. "We join the families and friends of the victims in mourning the senseless loss of so many beautiful, beloved lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with them in these most difficult times."
"Before Sept. 11, there was this great momentum building, a real openness to hearing about immigrant rights—even President Bush was talking about extending amnesty for immigrants," observes Kate Pham, a 23-year-old student at Irvine Valley College who had been working for months to help coordinate the Sept. 24 daylong march and demonstration at Taco Bell headquarters. "But after the terrible things that have happened, I'm afraid people will see any political protest as another attack on America."
That's almost certainly right. And that's very certainly wrong. Grassroots free speech and protest—especially on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised—is our most American right. Some might consider it an obligation. It is unquestionably our most patriotic tradition, the act that gave birth to the United States and that continues to give substance to our Pledge of Allegiance to the flags that are flying all over the place.
Taco Bell's official reaction to the CIW's decision? "In light of events, it is the appropriate action to take," says Laurie Gannon, the company spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, however, it has been business as usual at Taco Bell. The company hasn't stopped selling chalupas and burrito supremes and mega-layered whatchamacallits out of respect for the victims. More to the point, it is not taking any action in response to Bush's call to "unite in our resolve for justice and peace" by improving the tomato pickers' wages and desperate standard of living.
Taco Bell continues to characterize the workers' situation as a matter between pickers and their direct employer, Six L's Packing Co., which is based in the south Florida town of Immokalee. "We do not get involved in the labor disputes of other companies," Gannon says.
But the CIW points out that Taco Bell is one of Six L's biggest customers, that Taco Bell benefits from the tomato pickers' substandard pay—which, at about 40 cents per 32-pound bucket, hasn't been raised since 1978—and that Taco Bell could double the workers' wages by paying one penny more per pound of tomatoes. The company earned $5.2 billion in 1999.
"We don't set prices, and we don't set wages," Gannon responded. "We are not the only buyer—or even the biggest buyer—of tomatoes in Florida. But we are a very big company, and that may be why we are a target." Gannon emphasized that the CIW protesters, who have been advocating a boycott since April 1, have had no impact on the company's business.
Neither did the president's call for "all Americans from every walk of life [to] unite in our resolve for justice and peace."
"This is not our issue," Gannon said, "and what the president said does not change that."