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Know Your Rights
Source: Downtown Express
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Protesters Give the Raspberry to Trader Joe’s Florida Tomatoes

The Community Farmworker Alliance NYC, in collaboration with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), spearheaded a protest in front of Trader Joe’s on Thurs., Aug. 19, beginning at 6 p.m. A broad spectrum of local labor and social justice organizations came out peacefully, if not vociferously, to protest Trader Joe’s tomato-buying practices.

As reported in the Aug. 11 issue of Chelsea Now, the CIW (located in Immokalee, Collier County, Florida) is demanding that Trader Joe’s join Whole Foods, Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway, several food service companies and a handful of tomato growers, who have already signed on to an agreement which would improve the lives of farmworkers in Immokalee. Most tomatoes consumed on the East Coast in winter are grown in this area.

According to a press release issued by CFA member Luis Gomez, “The CIW is targeting Trader Joe’s to encourage them to be part of the solution. They must eliminate the conditions that allow slavery to occur in U.S. agriculture, which means to help increase wages, to improve working conditions and to give workers a voice in their workplace, so we can bring an end to the harvest of shame in the United States.”

Audrey Sasson, a CFA-NYC member, said the protest was targeting this particular store, the most recently opened, “while people are starting to pay attention to it. There are lots of campaigns all over the country to improve the lives of farmworkers. Being here is one of the many ways that we as consumers can support them,” she said.

Adhering to strict protest rules, the groups stretched across the West 21st St. and Sixth Ave. storefront on either side of the entrance, holding up colorful banners, signs and posters, some with cleverly descriptive phrases, like “Traitor Joe’s.” Other participants handed out literature and talked to the passing public and Trader Joe’s customers about farmworker conditions and asked them to sign petitions, letters and postcards — which organizers would mail to Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, California. The CIW itself was not present. They were back in Immokalee after touring the city with their “Florida Modern Slavery Museum” truck and meeting with local organizing groups.

The friendly, festive atmosphere was punctuated by a periodic call and response in Spanish asking for “justice now,” led by Charlene Obernauer of Jobs with Justice, a Hauppauge, Long Island workers’ rights group. “Any time workers are struggling, we come out to support it,” she declared.

Also participating in the rally were Make the Road New York, a grassroots, membership-driven organization, which confronts inequity and social injustice, based in the low-income communities of Bushwick, Brooklyn, Jackson Heights, Queens and Port Richmond, Staten Island. The 7,000-plus members are primarily Latino immigrants, 75 percent of whom are women. Hilary Klein, lead organizer from Brooklyn, stated that her members were here because “they can relate to it. Many of them were farmworkers in their countries.”

Amador Rivas, a member of the group, added in Spanish, “We are here to support the tomato workers in Florida. But the struggle for workers’ rights and better working conditions is on a national and international level.”

A half dozen young African-American women from Youth Activist Youth Allies (Ya-Ya Network) held up a large banner depicting two shackled hands, a tomato in each, against a blue background on which was written, “Slavery is Not Sustainable.” The youth-led not-for-profit, located at 224 W. 29th St., is staffed with young people, 15 to 19. “We believe in a lot of social justice issues and also feel strongly about workers’ rights,” declared Ciarra Boyd, one of the banner holders. “Us being here is giving other organizations a helping hand and letting them know that young people here support them.”

Standing next to Ya-Ya Network was a contingent from the Jewish Labor Committee, 25 W. 21st St., “the voice of the Jewish community in the labor movement and the voice of the labor movement in the Jewish community,” their website stated. Matt Wolkowicz, a Spanish teacher in the city school system, said he teaches a lot of children of struggling low-income workers. He remembers his last action in Pottsville, Iowa, at Agriprocessors, “the kosher meat mishegas” in May 2008. During the raid, feds arrested 300 undocumented workers. Working conditions (in which workers suffered lost limbs, broken bones, eye injuries and hearing loss), wages and the ethics of kosher meat created an enormous scandal. “It was scary. I never saw electronic bracelets around pregnant women,” Wolkowicz said.

The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a Dumbo-based group that supports radical and progressive causes, supplied a repertoire of attention-getting horn, brass and drum rhythms. Avi Rosenthalis, who wielded a drum mallet, said the group had upwards of 50 members of mostly amateur musicians. “We attend protests, benefits, rallies, direct actions, marches, any type of work to amplify the cause.”

During the height of the protest, Chelsea Now entered Trader Joe’s to elicit a statement from the manager. Although she was very polite — almost apologetic — she said she was not allowed to talk to the press, nor could her employees or customers, but Chelsea Now was welcome to speak to the latter once they had exited the store and were away from the entrance. Efforts to speak to customers entering or exiting proved difficult. They either ran past with their heads down or eyes beamed ahead, or they murmured “no comment.” It is not known if the protest impacted customer sales.

No protesters entered the store. Said Kate Caldwell of National Economic & Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), in an Aug. 17 phone interview, “We as a solidarity group of the CIW will be extremely respectful of Trader Joe’s property. We understand the manager of this store has no control over where the tomatoes are sourced from. The intention is to not cause any concern for Trader Joe’s or Chelsea residents.”

The day after the protest, Chelsea Now contacted Alison Mochizuki, Trader Joe’s national public relations director, and requested comments on the company’s position regarding fair labor practices for farmworkers, thoughts about the protest and asked if they were planning to sign an agreement with the CIW. Mochizuki replied that day with an almost identical statement given previously, as reported in the newspaper on Aug. 11. She repeated, “At Trader Joe’s, we work with reputable suppliers that have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting if not exceeding government standards throughout all aspects of their businesses. At this time, I have no additional comments.”

Caldwell said that Mochizuki’s statement to Chelsea Now was the most response they have ever gotten to their repeated requests for talks. “Last year, the CIW had two supermarket weeks of action [in March and Nov.]. Nationwide people went to their local supermarket and took manager letters saying this is the CIW, these are our concerns, here’s what we are asking you to do.”

Caldwell added the only way to find out where those Trader Joe’s brand tomatoes come from is to look at the original boxes they are packed in. She acknowledged that while Trader Joe’s buys from Lady Moon Farms, a grower who is working with the CIW in Florida, “they also buy for their TJ brand from growers who are not part of CIW’s Fair Food Campaign and who were implicated in the most recent slavery convictions in Florida.”

Lady Moon Farms and Alderman Farms were the first two Florida tomato growers to sign agreements with Whole Foods Markets, supporting the CIW “penny per pound program,” which raises the 32-pound bucket rate to 72-77 cents, potentially doubling workers’ earnings. On average, farmworkers earn 40 to 50 cents per bucket, a wage that has not increased since 1978. In September 2008, Whole Foods Market became the first in the supermarket industry to sign an agreement to work in partnership with the CIW to help improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato harvesters.

In an Aug. 24 email, Michael Sinatra — a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market — told Chelsea Now, “We have been paying the additional penny-per-pound premium for Florida tomatoes since the time we signed the agreement in 2008. Typically, [tomato] pricing is determined based on other factors and the impact of this agreement has been insignificant.”

Employees at the East Village 14th St. Trader Joe’s expressed surprise at the protest. They all agreed that Trader Joe’s treated them very well. One unidentified worker said he had been working there for four years and was earning $19 an hour with full benefits.