Farmworkers and social justice advocates gathered outside a North Tampa Publix Saturday evening to demand fair wages and better treatment for workers in the fields. The demonstration coincided with the national release of Food Chains, a documentary about the struggles of U.S. farmworkers, the night before.
Protesters chanted in a megaphone callback manner as they brandished signs along the sidewalk.
At the onset of the protest there were about 30 people, but that number grew to nearly 60 as the sun began to set, and it became more difficult for motorists to read the protest slogans on the signs.
Those who attended the protest were there to raise awareness of the social, economic and working conditions of farmworkers, most notably Latin Americans, who were depicted in the Food Chains film.
Joe Parker, co-organizer of the protest, is a member of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a student-led advocacy group that works closely with other farmworker advocacy organizations.
He was adamant that Publix could make a significant difference (social, moral and financial) by joining the Coaliton of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program.
"(The program involves) twelve major corporate tomato buyers as well as farmworkers themselves," Parker said. "They're working to improve wages and working conditions in the fields and extend a number of concrete changes."
Those changes include the right to shade and water, along with a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and forced labor in the fields, he said.
Parker added that part of the CIW's goals are focused on paying farmworkers a living wage, which is garnered by leveeing an extra penny per pound for tomatoes that Fair Food Program partners purchase.
But just because a few Hollywood heavyweights, like co-executive producer Eva Longoria, lent their names and resources to the new film, doesn't mean this push for reform is a new cause célèbre.
For instance, the CIW has been at the forefront of worker-based human rights since 1993. The organization and its partners have campaigned for more than five years to encourage Publix to join the Fair Food Program. This is one of the issues Food Chains addresses.
Brian West, media and community relations manager for Publix, commented on the documentary in an email to CL. It reads:
"The documentary, Food Chains, does not accurately portray Publix, the suppliers we partner with or the working conditions of the people who pick the tomatoes that are sold in our stores."
The Florida Health Department estimates there are between 150,000 to 200,000 seasonal and migrant farmworkers, including their families, who work in throughout the state annually.
Parker estimated about 20,000 to 30,000 are engaged in the tomato harvest. And Silvia Perez, a CIW member, is one of those workers.
Perez said she hopes Publix will pay the extra 1 or 2 cents for a pound of tomatoes.
"A wonderful thing to imagine is the day when Publix and Wendy's, who is also asked to join the program, would do just that... pay that extra penny," Perez said, "And help us to enforce the code of conduct that we need so badly to be enforced throughout the industry."
Resident Chuck Siegfried attended the protest. And like many others in attendance, he made his way to view the documentary afterward.
Siegfried sits on the council for social justice at Clearwater's Unitarian Universalists church, and works a day job as a corporate purchasing manager. He doesn’t see the long-term financial worth in not paying the extra couple cents.
"What is Publix trying to hide from?" Siegfried said. "They can just pass the costs along to the customer… Most of us wouldn't mind paying a penny more for a pound of tomatoes, knowing that the workers were being treated better because of that."