Working for Beans

Photo by Keith May”Is this where we're supposed to be?” The protester looked confused. Twenty minutes late, she had just arrived at Diedrich Coffee on 17th Street in Costa Mesa and wasn't sure where she was supposed to be. Her confusion was justifiable: from the looks of it, there was no protest to join—just a group of friendly looking people sitting on the back of a pickup truck.

Part of a local Green Party splinter-group called Liberate OC, they were at Diedrich Coffee to help celebrate “Fair Trade Day”—”celebrate” the way Greens do, with fliers, politics, dissent, all of it friendly and consensual. The May 20 “Fair Trade Day” was supposed to be a nationwide event to pressure Diedrich Coffee, Starbucks and other corporate coffee megachains not to purchase coffee from greedy middlemen but from nonprofit organizations that pay decent prices to the Third World workers who pick the beans.

The fight for better working conditions for coffee workers is still a lonely struggle. The four protesters who showed up at Diedrich Coffee were a perfect illustration: as the afternoon sun made them sweat more profusely than Richard Nixon in a televised debate, the outnumbered quartet of activists seemed to know there was little hope they'd spark an insurrection against the global coffee industry. Just 20 feet away, Diedrich Coffee's shady, jam-packed courtyard beckoned.

This was no Battle in Seattle. Instead of waving signs, chanting slogans, or setting up a picket line in front of the coffeehouse—one of 42 the Irvine-based company operates nationwide—the protestors kept their respectful distance. They answered quietly and politely questions posed by the only two people who seemed interested:the Weekly and a bearded radio host from UC Irvine's student-run radio station, KUCI. Customers ignored the spectacle, except the one bewildered coffee drinker who took one look at the activists and railed, “What are you people—socialists?

Thanks to the hard work of people like Liberate OC's Judy Fitt and Mira Ingram (half of the Saturday protest), both Starbucks and Diedrich Coffee have promised to negotiate a percentage of their whole-bean coffee purchases with TransFair USA, a coffee importing organization that pays Third World coffee farmers a fixed price, regardless of market fluctuations. That, the pair say, will ensure farmers a steady living wage.

Both companies have so far refused to sell Fair Trade coffee by the cup because they don't believe the public cares enough about human rights to bother asking for it. Judging by the number of Diedrich customers who ignored the Liberate OC protest, the coffee companies are probably right.

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