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Publix’s Profitable Accommodation With Poverty: Not a Penny More for Tomato Pickers

| April 23, 2013

A protest of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. (CWMc)

A protest of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. (CWMc)

By Cary McMullen

It’s a pleasant Sunday in Lakeland, not too hot and not too cool. It’s a comforting end to a very long walk for about 150 farm laborers, who marched 200 miles from Fort Myers last month to put pressure on Publix Super Markets.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the closest thing to a union that these impoverished, mostly immigrant tomato pickers have, has been trying for years to get Publix to join the Fair Food Coalition, in which suppliers and purchasers agree to pay the workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked.

Cary McMullen


florida voices columnists flaglerlive

That one penny can mean up to $70 more per day for a worker. Eleven other corporations, including restaurant giant Yum! Brands, have joined the coalition, but Publix has refused to join or even meet with the workers or coalition leaders.

So the marchers were on their way to the gates of Publix’s corporate headquarters to stage a rally. Along the way they sang, chanted and waved signs and banners bearing the familiar words of labor movements everywhere – fairness, justice, unity. They were joined by several hundred others for this final stage, people who came from around the state and even around the country to show their support.

The CIW has gotten a lot of support from religious leaders, especially the Catholic Church. Bishop John Noonan of the Diocese of Orlando spoke to the marchers after they arrived in Lakeland. And in the crowd, several religious groups were represented. The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, quipped, “This is our Palm Sunday parade into the temple of commerce,” even though it wasn’t Palm Sunday.

Also among the marchers was a hero to many young evangelical Christians, the author Shane Claiborne. He had come down from Philadelphia, where he lives and works in a communal urban ministry. A dozen years ago, he walked in a similar march with the CIW.

“I’ve gotten to know these people as friends,” he told me in a Southern drawl. “It’s a very beautiful movement. It invites people to be who they could be.” Referring to the late George Jenkins, the founder of Publix, and the Jenkins family, he said, “I know they’re Methodists. There’s no doubt in my mind John Wesley would be alongside these walkers.

“Publix has been known as a good company that does a lot for the community,” he continued. “This is another opportunity for them to do good. It’s a really simple issue: Love your neighbor as yourself.”


I have a number of friends who work for Publix, and it’s where my family usually shops. I’ve seen firsthand the community projects supported by Publix Charities. So I’m a little puzzled by Publix’s corporate stance.

Its position has been that this is a labor dispute, to be settled between the growers and the workers. Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten told The Ledger of Lakeland that the company would pay the extra penny per pound if that’s what the growers charged.

“This is what we mean when we say, ‘Put it in the price,’” she said.

Patten also raised the prospect of Publix having to get involved in disputes with any of its other thousands of suppliers. I can see the point, but fresh produce is a unique commodity that depends heavily on intensive, brute-force, unskilled (and therefore cheap) labor. These workers are crucial to Publix’s supply chain, and I would think they could see the benefit of cooperating with the other parties involved.

As it is, it leaves the impression of a company just wanting to avoid controversy and hoping that if it ignore the issue, the whole thing will go away.

From a corporate point of view, it might work. From a moral point of view, not so much.

The CIW workers quoted George Jenkins’ own words against the company: “Don’t let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing.”

Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached by email here.

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15 Responses for “Publix’s Profitable Accommodation With Poverty: Not a Penny More for Tomato Pickers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Publix along with other Big Box stores squeeze every cent out of suppliers and the public. I dont know but I have noticed a decline in quality, and availibility of good fruit and vegetables. The public is last on their list when it comes to quality its all about profit. Im sure that they are making a heafty profit on every bushell they buy at everyone elses expense thats Capitalism run amuck. If you have ever been to a Whole Foods store you pay more for the best quality. We are being demeaned abit at atime with poor food quality and higher prices. What do you think Hope Publix and Walmart corporate is reading this.

    • Christine says:

      There is the new film coming out soon about farm workers. I have to say I’m shocked to learn that farm workers are getting one cent per pound of food picked! And how is that reflective in the prices as the prices get higher and higher, and the quality continues to drop? Fast food chains like Subway paid the extra one cent per pound – and made sure the cost goes to the workers. Publix and Walmart can do the same….

  2. RG says:

    Publix along with other Big Box stores squeeze every cent out of suppliers and the public. I dont know but I have noticed a decline in quality, and availibility of good fruit and vegetables. The public is last on their list when it comes to quality its all about profit. Im sure that they are making a heafty profit on every bushell they buy at everyone elses expense thats Capitalism run amuck. If you have ever been to a Whole Foods store you pay more for the best quality. We are being demeaned abit at atime with poor food quality and higher prices. What do you think Hope Publix and Walmart corporate is reading this.

    • Anonymous says:

      Produce quality is all about the weather at the growing location and time of year, as most items are seasonal. Don’t blame Publix, or farm workers for that matter, for a bad crop, blame the weather.

  3. James says:

    Lets see if I understand this, we don’t want illegal imigrants who make way below poverty wage, we don’t have citizens who want those jobs, we have companies that don’t care about their employees and we have consumers who would run you over if they found a item for a penny less. When does the greed stop.

  4. Sherry Epley says:

    Right on James and RG! All symtoms of the “down side of Capitalism”. . . GREED and INHUMANITY a systemic disease that is destroying our consumer based economy from every angle. This is just another form of “union busting” in the name of higher profits. Other symptoms include “deregulation” of any employment laws and protections, “out sourcing” to the cheapest labor market, a working class that pays more in taxes than the wealthy, subsidies to industries that are enjoying record profits, protecting assets in “off shore” accounts to avoid taxes, investing in other countries instead of our own. . . . and “the beat goes on”, and on and on. . . .

    Where is the implimentation of the religious teachings of caring for our brothers and sisters in all of this?

  5. Diego Miller says:

    Publix needs to help the Florida farmers especially small farms. They work hard and lose money most years because of fuel and equipment costs. Publix quality has gone down and they have lowered their standards. I was a bagger at a local Publix and have many friends that work for Publix. Publix has fallen into the same trap as other big companies who now use bean counters as CEO. How about doing whats best for everybody and get some quality local produce produced by local labor.

  6. NortonSmitty says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that basic human decency dictates that the very least Publix should do is pay the Immokallee slaves another penny a pound. And insure that the 21st century straw-bosses in that God-forsaken hellhole can’t use this bounty to get richer milking their 3D workers (Drunks, Druggies and Deportables) by fronting them Mad Dog and crack at their Company Stores to enslave them in debt as has been undeniably documented for years.

    I would like to join this boycott, but I haven’t bought produce at the Big P for months now for a different reason. That being the fact that their entire inventory of produce is absolute shit! Red baseballs passed of as Tomatoes, Organic, Canadian, whatever, tasteless, crunchy and inedible. And they have the balls to charge you $2.49 per pound for the privilege of gagging on them. Beautiful looking purple fat and juicy plums that are so unripe inside that even putting them on the windowsill for days, they get rotten before they get ripe. Avocados the same. All of it genetically or environmentally manipulated to ripen quickly and travel from Argentina without bruising or rotting on the month long cruise.

    So unless they pay the penny to the workers and follow that up with probably a nickle to get some semblance of quality in their product, they can shove it all up their greedy corporate asses, starting with their tasteless corn-on -the cob and finishing with the bitter Honeydew Melons. Until then, I’m buying local!

  7. Gia says:

    When I’m paying $3.99 a pound of tomatos, where the $$$ goes??

  8. confidential says:

    Lets treat our farmers and farm workers fair. I pay 3 bucks or more for a lb of tomatoes how much the middleman greed makes..? C’mon Publix!… I buy all my groceries with you, support these workers by joining their coalition and would be one more good cause in your portfolio as Publix community supporter and benefactor.

  9. toldja says:

    Publix has no business getting between outside workers and their employers. In what universe is that proper? Publix has a responsibility to their customers, employees and stockholders. These folks are none of the above. If you don’t like what you are getting paid to do a job, quit and find another job. Blaming a retailer that your employer(not Publix) doesn’t pay you enough money is borderline criminal. Those who support this extortion attempt should send cash to the cause or do fundraisers for the farmworkers. Publix isn’t the bad guy, the writer of this article is the bad guy.

    • Anonymous says:

      Publix does NOT have the relationship with the migrant workers. Even if Publix paid the extra, who’s to say it would be trickled down to the workers since Publix pays the supplier? Perhaps an analogy would be factory workers protesting a retail store who buys the clothing they assemble from the brand manufacturer the immigrant workers are employed by and who

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes! Publix has the relationship with the supplier. Perhaps an analogy would be factory workers protesting a retailer who purchases the items they assemble from the brand manufacturer that employ them. The retailer has a purchase order with the manufacturer, not the workers! Their beef is with the supper, think about it, people. Why don’t they protest you, then, for not wanting to pay a higher price for produce? And should Publix pay the supplier more, if asked, who’s to say it would trickle down to the migrant workers?? They can only hope it would ultimately benefit them.

  10. rickg says:

    Come on Publix pony up the 1 cent per pound…

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