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Publix, These are Some Rotten Tomatoes

March 10th, 2012 9:22 am | by

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This week protesters fasted in front of Publix headquarters.

Editorials usually describes a problematic issue and counsels someone else how to solve it.

Today, the issue is tomatoes. According to Publix, the only solution is through me — and other consumers.

I’m the grocery shopper in the family. I’m the one who winds through the aisles at Publix. I pick up the products, check their ingredients and choose the healthiest option. I’m the family member who compares brands for price and notes where the item was grown or packaged.

I do pay attention to how the food reaches the store before I put it in the cart. And, I’m not alone. Being a good grocer, so does Publix. Usually.

I no longer buy coffee. But, when I did, I looked for the “Fair Trade” label. Publix advertises they do the same. In their GreenWise Market Magazine they noted, “A Fair Trade Certified mark indicates that growers received a set minimum price for their coffee and were part of a co-op linked directly to importers, helping them hold on to more of the benefits of their labor.” Not all coffee at Publix is Fair Trade, but the company obviously finds it to their advantage to note their concern with the world’s coffee growers.

This week, I stood in front of the tomatoes at Publix and was concerned.

Florida tomatoes are a multimillion dollar business. Yet, the people who pick the tomatoes don’t make a living wage. Their back-breaking labor nets the average farmworker less than $12,000 a year. It’s not just about the cash. Other problems on Florida tomato farms are well-documented. In this decade, Florida farm employers have been charged with abuses from battery to slavery.

You would like to believe that the friendly associate-owned Publix must be a good steward, studying the abuses and combating them. Any corporation concerned with coffee growers must be using their multi-billion dollar weight to reward only ethical growers. Well, maybe not.

Certainly many such corporations as McDonalds, Taco Bell, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s throw around their weight. They’ve signed an agreement to only work with growers who follow a code of conduct that treats farmworkers humanely. They’ve even gone as far as paying a penny more per pound for tomatoes so that money goes to the farmworkers. Workers who earned $12,000 a year before the penny make about an extra $5,000 with it. Workers who felt threatened and were abused now have an organization who oversees conditions.

Sadly, Publix stands separate from these other corporations. They will not support the agreement between the farmworkers and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. They don’t feel it’s their place to throw around their weight. After all, this isn’t electricity.

Joining the agreement won’t affect the Publix bottom line. That penny per pound would certainly be passed to the consumer.

So, who does Publix believe must ensure ethical treatment of farmworkers? A Publix spokesperson was quoted that the onus is on the consumer, “customers will make their own purchasing decisions.”

This week, I stood in front of the tomatoes at Publix and was perplexed.

Lakelanders treat Publix differently than other corporations. Because George Jenkins moved the company here, we feel we own a piece of the company. Many of us, through our jobs, or because we’re the children of past employees, actually own Publix stock. In Lakeland, there are people who’ll update an old chestnut from America’s past: “What’s good for Publix is good for the country.” Would the farmworkers agree with that statement?

Publix, refusing to sign the agreement isn’t good for Florida farmworkers, tomato growers, you or the consumer. Your strength can make a major difference in the lives of thousands of people. Your strength is based on the power of your customers who purchase tomatoes at your stores.

This week, I stood in front of the tomatoes at Publix. I decided to wait until I go to the Farmers’ Market. Next week, I hope to see other consumers walk by the tomatoes at Publix without stopping.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Chuck Welch for Lakeland Local

Posted in Commentary
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28 Responses to “Publix, These are Some Rotten Tomatoes”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I stopped buying tomatoes at Publix over a year ago when I first became aware of this problem. I wrote them a letter and told the produce manager at my local Publix. There are plenty of places in Lakeland to buy tomatoes and other produce. And I’d happily pay $0.05+ more per pound if it meant that the person who picked that tomato could feed his or her family.

    As much as I love Publix, I think they are being very ingenious in this area by putting everything on the consumer. In the beginning, if they had just signed on, upped the price $0.01 per pound, and then advertised how they are helping to ensure living wages, it would have gone a million times better for them. I hope others heed your call to skip the tomatoes at Publix.

  2. Billy Townsend Says:

    I wish I knew more about the specifics and the system behind this issue. I too would pay more for a more humane standard of living for these honorable workers. I mean, really, just think of all the produce that we waste after we buy it by not eating soon enough. I’m ashamed every time I toss out a rotten grape (Be honest. I’m sure my family is not the only one.) Paying a little extra might make me gauge needs better.

    But, believe it or not, the libertarian/conservative in me (really, I have this streak) worries about the real world realities of system-tinkering when I don’t have a good handle on the real world outcomes. That applies here as much as with schools and the Drug War. So I don’t have strong opinion about Publix’s behavior toward farmworkers because I don’t know enough about their reasons for resistance and haven’t taken the time to inform myself. I can’t help believing there’s a reasonable solution out there.

    What I am struck by, and Chuck hit it perfectly, is Publix’s complete willingness to tinker with effective systems with LE — based on a community-focused argument. They don’t just come out and say, “Sell it, so we can pay less.” They say: “Sell it b/c it’s win, win. Better for all of us, etc.”

    As Publix well knows, and often demonstrates, community-focused leadership means community-focused leadership. It is odd that Publx is ready to charge into, indeed create, a debate over a core piece of Lakeland’s quality of life at the same time that they do what they can to ignore a similar quality of life debate for Florida as a whole and almost portray themselves as powerless before the whims of consumers.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I too would like to know more. Any unlawful treatment of workers should be punished, but why aren’t the workers part of that solution? Don’t they go to the police when they are injured unlawfully? Why are the workers putting up with it? Even if they walk off the fields, no jurisdiction in the US is going to allow them to starve. If there’s coercion and abuse going on, we’re a right to work state and they don’t have to be there. If wages are the sole issue, the farmers will naturally have to pay more if labor is unwilling to work at the offered rates.

    I can well imagine life looks very different from that end of the economic spectrum, but people work themselves out of poverty every day in this country.

    With respect to these “agreements” by corporations, isn’t that just a form of price fixing? I don’t expect that you can really solve those problems from the top down, they have to be solved from the bottom up with workers respecting themselves and standing up for their rights.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I think the kind of pressure being put on Publix by the workers, consumers, and thought leaders like Chuck fits in perfectly with libertarian thought. No one is asking the government to step in and set prices, demanding particular wages be paid. Pursing this change through non-governmental channels is the best way, in my opinion, to achieve change in the lives of those workers.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    The workers in this situation are definitely “respecting themselves and standing up for their rights.” They have stepped forward in many instances, which is why we know about cases of modern slavery happening in our state. We wouldn’t even know about this issue if the workers weren’t willing to put their livelihood on the line.

    Certainly there are some who have walked off the job because the felt the wages were unreasonable. But others may have chosen to stay because they want to change conditions for future farm workers. Working from within the system is often necessarily to facilitate change. And of course, there are still others who stay because they know no other life. Sometimes the devil we do know is better than the devil we don’t know.

  6. peanutmom2001 Says:

    I am confused about one part. It seems that Publix is saying that they don’t want to be responsible for paying the workers directly. That makes me think they would be willing to pay more for the tomatoes just hoping it would go to the workers. I agree they should not pay the workers directly, but then they should stop buying from suppliers that don’t treat their workers well or pay them sufficiently. I would be willing to support Publix in that way. Just the same, I would be willing to stop buying tomatoes from Publix unless I was sure they were being purchased from humane suppliers. I am sincerely interested in understanding more.

  7. Rteddybear Says:

    personally the workers need to stop  trying to “bully” Publix with all this picketting and go to the growers, Publix does not set the price and it is not fair for these people to try to make corporations look bad and force them to get in between something that is not their place t began with, GO HOME , Pickett the GROWERS!!!!!

  8. Chuck Welch Says:

    Publix obviously decides to support select causes through various means. They have the power to sway segments of the industry through their support of products or their decisions to buy or not buy from select producers. Ask any new product salesman what it means to get Publix to start carrying their product, or what happens if they decide to stop carrying it.

    As for the matter that workers are mistreated. It’s a fact. It happens with so many products in so many countries. I believe it’s our duty as humans to refuse to support mistreatment when we discover it. Consumers have stop purchasing shoes and smartphones, ice cream and face cream, diamonds and baby milk — all based on protest of the actions of the producers. The truth is my refusal to purchase tomatoes at Publix isn’t going to change the mistreatment. If Publix makes the decision to join McDonalds, Whole Foods and Taco Bell, well, that will be a seismic shift in the Florida tomato landscape.

    As for the cell phone: you can judge a person’s life by the image of a split-second? How do you know that was his phone? Or maybe it was borrowed or was donated because the person has a sick relative? Maybe the person wasn’t a farmworker, but one of the others who came to support the protest. You really can’t tell, and more importantly, it isn’t germane to the discussion. (See: Ad Hominem ) The cars? Ditto.

  9. Chuck Welch Says:

    Good for you to ask. An independent search is the best response to this situation. 
    There is a lot on the net about the situation. To get Publix side, you need to do a bit of a search on Publix, tomato growers, farmworkers, penny and similar terms. Publix doesn’t address the subject directly on any of their materials that I’ve discovered.For the farmworkers, start here: http://www.ciw-online.org/101.html#cff

  10. Chuck Welch Says:

    An expected response and one many consider doable. I ask if you also believe that the police should not arrest drug users as they don’t produce the problem. 

    The truth is, if Publix and other consumers refused to buy tainted products, growers would change their ways.

  11. Chuck Welch Says:

    From my reading into the process: The penny is invoiced when the retailer buys their tomatoes. If they deal directly with the grower, a 100,000 lb order would include a $1,000 premium paid by Publix to the grower. The grower, in turn, would present their farmworkers a bonus in their checks based on the pounds of tomatoes they picked. If they deal with a wholesaler, Publix would pay the same $1,000 to the wholesaler who would present it to the grower, who would pass it down to the farmworkers.

  12. Finfan Says:

    If Publix were to give a pay a penny more (which by the way there is no garantee the worker would ever see it.) this would open the floodgates for everyone who is unhappy with their employer to protest about somthing. The worker’s issues are not with Publix but with the growers. Call the police if you are treated illegally. Get an attorney if you are not making minimum wage and have unhealthy working conditions.
    The fact that Publix is looking to find a cheaper way to provide electricity to its stores has nothing to do with this. You said yourself you always compair prices so why can’t they?

  13. Wesley Barnett Says:

    I have voiced my opinion on the “picketing those who don’t sign your paycheck” enough. I am now interested in the more abstruse inner-workings of this movement.

    Who is the CIW? They claim to be “a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida,” though many sources note that they are affiliated with the AFL-CIO [http://www.boomerspeaks.com/NAMES/CoalitionOfImmokaleeWorkers.htm], which has constantly been trying to unionize Publix, most actively in the mid-90s under the United Food & Commercial Workers Union.  Are they a grassroots movement, or are they a pawn of a nationwide union group that has started (continued?) employing subversive tactics? Do a google search for AFL CIO CIW and see if there appears to be a connection to you.

    The original signers of the Fair Food pact were national fast-food chains. Whole Foods was the lone grocery chain, and not a mainstream one. Recently, on Feb 16 Trader Joe’s also signed the pact. What is the pact? Is there a cop of it available to peruse? Why are only fast-food chains and specialty grocers signing it? As far as I can tell, no major food retailer has signed the pact.

    Many articles, like this one [http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Organizing-Bargaining/Trader-Joe-s-Latest-Food-Chain-to-Sign-Pact-to-Protect-Tomato-Pickers] proclaim that Florida is the largest tomato-producer in the country, though California is larger [http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/vegetables/tomatoes.htm]. I wonder how the pickers in California are treated, and what the price difference in tomatoes is.

    Furthermore, an article from Jan 2011 in the NYT claims that the CIW and the Growers Exhange “completed details of a code of conduct that included not only the wage improvement but also guarantees of increased workplace protections — like minimum-wage guarantees and a zero tolerance policy on forced and child labor — for the laborers.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/us/19farm.html?_r=1]

    If they have already gained the concessions from their employers, why are they still protesting? Other articles mentioned wholesale purchasers. Is there another intermediary between the picker, farm, and retailer? If so, why is that organization not mentioned in the articles about Publix?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that they should be asked.

  14. Chuck Welch Says:

    Re: boomerspeaks.com: Linking to a website where the author chooses to remain anonymous and not show where or how he (or she) found his “facts” doesn’t lend itself to a convincing argument. 

    Whole Foods may consider themselves more major than you imply, but protests start somewhere and that somewhere, in this case, was the fast food industry.

    Check your USDA link again. You’re mixing processing tomatoes (machine-harvested) & fresh-market tomatoes (hand-picked). Save for 2008, Florida has been the top producing state for “fresh-market tomatoes for decades.”

    As for gaining basic rights from some employers, it looks as though CIW is trying to ensure there isn’t a market for any growers who don’t want to maintain the code.

    I didn’t mention the payment options in this editorial. If you’d like to link to the articles you meant, I am sure we could discuss those also.

    What’s odd about all these arguments, is that Publix has stated they’d pay the penny. They just don’t like the method. They haven’t said why. (And saying you don’t like the way a seller invoices you is not a convincing argument.)

  15. Chuck Welch Says:

    Read my response to Rteddybear. It fits here also.

    And though I compare prices, I don’t buy on price alone. Nor would I choose to increase property rates of my neighbors just to save myself a little cash.

  16. Wesley Barnett Says:

    Please tell me why their old victory was not enough:”The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade association, completed details of a code of conduct that included not only the wage improvement but also guarantees of increased workplace protections — like minimum-wage guarantees and a zero tolerance policy on forced and child labor — for the laborers.”

    “Even though it’s a small increase, we see that they’re treating us fairly,” Mr. Perez said. “Now we’re working comfortably, and contractors can’t abuse their power or reprimand us unfairly.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/us/19farm.html?_r=2

  17. Wesley Barnett Says:

    Please tell me why their old victory was not enough:”The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a trade association, completed details of a code of conduct that included not only the wage improvement but also guarantees of increased workplace protections — like minimum-wage guarantees and a zero tolerance policy on forced and child labor — for the laborers.”

    “Even though it’s a small increase, we see that they’re treating us fairly,” Mr. Perez said. “Now we’re working comfortably, and contractors can’t abuse their power or reprimand us unfairly.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/us/19farm.html?_r=2

  18. Wesley Barnett Says:

    I think the math would work out to a $100 premium, plus the clerical costs involved.

  19. Chuck Welch Says:

    My typo. Fixed. Thanks.

  20. Chuck Welch Says:

    Is it over if Publix, Winn-Dixie and other non-signers are not paying the penny? 

  21. Chuck Welch Says:

    “But don’t the processed tomatoes have to be picked first, as well?”

    From my reading, processed tomatoes are machine harvested.

  22. Chuck Welch Says:

    Companies pay premiums through middlemen all the time. I think the difference here is that the bottom-rung of the employment has convinced many companies to use their socio-economic strength to improve conditions and wages. Now they’re leveraging the positive outcome from one segment of the market in an attempt to convince another segment of the market. 

    Making social decisions with economic strength isn’t new or unusual. Similar situations range from the Free Trade coffee system to the blood diamond extreme. 

  23. Chuck Welch Says:

    Those of you wondering why you haven’t seen your comment published please check your email. We have a firm comment policy regarding new commenters:

    “Comments are published at the discretion of the site publisher. A working email address is required to comment. The use of a fake or failed email address means I’ll simply delete your comment as spam. — Real names are encouraged, but pen names are allowed by request. — By submitting a comment here you grant Lakeland Local a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution.—Chuck Welch”

  24. Wesley Barnett Says:

    If the Farmers’ trade association have agreed to minimum wage (an increase over the prior status quo, won in early 2011 from efforts undertaken by CIW since 2008 and before), that would increase the price of tomatoes, which would be (and presumably has been) passed on to the wholesalers or retailers. No need for this arbitrary “penny per pound.”
    It would be nice for BOTH SIDES to acknowledge this previous victory. If the articles form early 2011 are mistaken and the farmers have not acted on their word, lets talk about THAT.Why do none of the current articles address the fact that their goals, minimum wage and civil working conditions, have already been won?

  25. Chuck Welch Says:

    I’m assuming by “articles” you don’t mean commentary or editorials such as the Lakeland Local piece above. 

    Could you point to the articles of which you write so we know we’re discussing the same pieces?

    Finally, you state “Why do none of the current articles address the fact that their goals, minimum wage and civil working conditions, have already been won?”

    In 2001, when the protest was simply aimed at Taco Bell, the penny-per-pound was already one of the original negotiation requests** — not minimum wage. It’s due to the sad truth that farmworkers don’t work stable 40-hr a week jobs. For reasons both environmental and political, they are piece workers. “Minimum wage” and “piece work” are difficult to impossible to align.Why the “penny-per-pound” option? From what I’ve read, the farmworkers had tried to get the growers to raise wages, but were rebuffed. The used the power of the consumer to pressure Taco Bell, to convince that company to use their economic strength to get the farmworkers relief.So, it doesn’t look like one side feels they have won. And it doesn’t look like the other side feels they need to alter their actions. I wouldn’t call this a group at the same table, let alone declare the process “won.”( ** – I try to link to articles when they’re addressed directly: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=-sAcAAAAIBAJ&sjid=pX8EAAAAIBAJ&pg=3484,4083987&dq=immokalee+workers&hl=en )

  26. Chuck Welch Says:

    Actually, Wesley found my typo. I left off a zero. The line was published as “10,000 lb order” when I meant to type ”100,000 lb order.”

  27. Anonymous Says:

    How childish. You would hurt everyone with your “answer”. You’d push the immigrant workers back to their home countries where they would be poorer, you would trap Americans into lower wage work for a significant fraction of their working lives leaving them less opportunity overall, and you would reduce the productivity of the entire country with the lost opportunity costs of forcing people into the lower productivity labor. Why would any American work as a picker when better wage, more productive work is available due to the relative advantages they accrue from growing up in a more affluent society? 

    And that’s just the economic downside. Consider the ultimate loss of Liberty by being able to force anyone into a specific labor field. It’s just like the military draft or all those egghead ideas for “national service”. If I can make you pick tomatoes, I can make you shine my shoes. 

  28. Paul Bodnick Says:

    Go on Face Book Page of Publix and tell them.

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