Now We Have Faith

With Taco Bell boycott over, activists plan for next fast-food battle

YoucanonceagainscarfdownaBorderBowl without guilt.

On March 8, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) announced they'd ended their nearly four-year boycott of Taco Bell after achieving a modest labor victory: the Irvine-based fast-food chain promises its Florida tomato harvesters a penny more per pound picked and a vague commitment to "improve working conditions in its Florida tomato fields."

That penny-per-pound is a hefty raise for the Florida migrant farmers, doubling their annual salary to just over $15,000. More than that, the CIW-Taco Bell agreement sets a historic precedent in the multi-billion dollar American fast-food business. In an industry plagued by allegations of worker mistreatment and the coincidental fattening of the American body, Taco Bell has taken the radical step of admitting its sins—and vowing to repent.

"We recognize that Florida tomato workers do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as employees in other industries, and there is a need for reform," announced Taco Bell President Emil Brolick. "We have indicated that any solution must be industry-wide, as our company simply does not have the clout alone to solve the issues raised by the CIW, but we are willing to play a leadership role within our industry to be part of the solution."

Brolick's frank confession represents a remarkable evolution for Taco Bell, which reported revenue of $1.3 billion in 2003. When the CIW first asked Taco Bell for the penny-per-pound increase in early 2001, the company refused, claiming such a matter was a labor dispute between the Immokalee farmworkers and their direct employer, Taco Bell supplier Six L's Packing Co. "We do not get involved in the labor disputes of other companies," a Taco Bell spokesperson told the Weeklyat the time [see Dave Wielenga's "Taco Hell," Sept. 21, 2001].

Rather than surrender, the CIW thrice organized "Taco Bell Truth Tours," caravans that crisscrossed the country and picked up activists along the way, with a mass rally outside Taco Bell's Irvine corporate headquarters as the destination. The CIW's efforts received national attention and endorsements. College students booted Taco Bell outlets off their campuses. Celebrities from Eric Schlosser to Martin Sheen joined rallies. Labor activists across the country provided strategic and moral support to the CIW's "Boycott the Bell" effort.

"It's still a little bit unbelievable," said CIW spokesperson Julia Perkins, of the union's agreement with Taco Bell. "This represents the first time a huge corporation passed revenue down the chain. I don't know what happened in their hearts and minds to make their stance change, but I can suppose they came to realize that this issue wasn't going away. It made business sense to do it now and not lose any future consumers. They don't want their brand to be associated with sweatshops."

Perkins said the CIW was especially grateful for OC activists. "They were with us in every way that we needed support," she said. "We always had a warm reception in Orange County. OC stood in solidarity with us throughout the struggle. We know that these relationships aren't going to end even though the Taco Bell boycott is over."

In Orange County, the Boycott the Bell movement helped jump-start the county's stagnant progressive movement, according to Jorge Rodríguez, a senior at UC Irvine who volunteers at Santa Ana's Centro Cultural de México. "It brought a lot of activists together—students, church groups, labor and ordinary citizens. It was a starting block for new people, and a rejuvenation for the more experienced," said Rodríguez, who spoke with the Weeklyvia cell phone from Louisville, Kentucky. He and other Centro volunteers were about to perform son jarocho tunes at a CIW victory celebration. "Whenever the Truth Tour came [to Orange County], activists would come out of everywhere. We became really passionate about the struggle. We didn't treat is as something hopeless: we thought something could be done. With this victory, it was done."

Despite the CIW-Taco Bell agreement, Rodríguez and Perkins say the battle isn't over. Perkins says the CIW will spend the next couple of months figuring out what's next. Meanwhile, Rodríguez points out that the networking that arose from the Boycott Taco Bell efforts created a bedrock upon which many of the county's anti-police brutality and anti-Iraq war movements have emerged. "The next step is to maintain the solidarity with the CIW and concentrate on the next project involving corporate injustice," he says. "There's a lot of it—Wal-Mart, McDonald's. The Taco Bell efforts resulted in a big victory.

"A lot of us have never participated in something so huge, and now we're ready for more," added Rodríguez. "Now we have faith."

GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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