Media covering the Fair Food Fast ask us, “How do you respond to Publix’s offer to “Put the penny in the cost and we’ll gladly pay it”? Publix’s statement is that they respond to market forces, and: “our policy is not to get involved in labor disputes.”
The extraordinary change in the relationship between growers and farmers at this moment is not a labor dispute. Over 90 percent of the Florida tomato growers and the Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW) have already agreed upon a Fair Food Code of Conduct. The corporations that have signed on have agreed to pay the Fair Food Premium, which is a small price increase that is designed to give the workers a penny wage increase for every pound of tomatoes they pick.
Greg Asbed, staff with the CIW likens the Fair Food Premium to the reverse of the Princess and the Pea story. The Princess feels discomfort at the placement of a pea at the bottom of stack of many mattresses, whereas Publix could sleep soundly and never notice the discomfort of a little penny. Meanwhile, farmworkers will experience significant gain from the expenditure of a penny a pound on the part of the corporation. Yet Publix refuses to talk to the farmworkers or even consider signing the agreement. By refusing, Publix undermines the efforts of the farmworkers to labor in environments free of abuses that have characterized the system for over three decades. Publix provides an alternative, a shelter for growers that have not signed the agreement. By so doing, they participate in practices that are unjust and immoral.
As the largest corporation in Florida, Publix exerts enormous influence in the food industry. Publix has the opportunity now be a part of the healthy changes that are taking place in the industry. Or, Publix can tacitly support the continuation of a system that does not recognize the humanity of the men and women who pick the tomatoes it sells in groceries stores it lauds as offering a “pleasurable shopping experience.”
How can we enjoy buying goods when we know the farmworkers who pick them are underpaid and overworked, who labor without pension and health benefits and when some of them may have been subjected to forced labor? The scriptures of the Old and the New Testament are clear in calling for justice for the worker and the creation of each one of us in the image of God. We stand with farmworkers as they strive for a new day in fields and a future for their children in a “Fair Food” universe.
Director, National Council of Churches Poverty Initiative