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.
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.