MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THING CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

These are difficult times for organized labor in America. Union membership is dropping, many companies are giving up on pensions, and there's pressure to cut health-care benefits. But one small group of workers has won a surprising victory against the world's second-biggest fast-food company. For the past four years, a group of tomato pickers in the town of Immokalee, Florida, has been asking consumers to boycott Taco Bell. The boycotters wanted the parent company of Taco Bell, Yum! Brands, to improve the lives of farm workers who harvest its ingredients. And after four years of resisting, Yum! executives have agreed that the industry needs reform. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling examines the strategy that helped farm workers force a multinational corporation to pay attention.

DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:

The farm workers who led the boycott against Taco Bell say they can hardly believe they've won.

Mr. GERARDO CHAVEZ (Organizer, Coalition of Immokalee Workers): For us, it was amazing.

ZWERDLING: Gerardo Chavez is one of the main organizers for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. On a recent evening, he's traveled to a victory party in a warehouse in Austin, Texas.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah!

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah!

ZWERDLING: He and other farm workers are fanning out across the country so they can thank local activists who supported their boycott all these years. Chavez is a lanky young man with a shy smile. He says he dropped out of school in Mexico when he was 13 years old. Now he has to pinch himself to make sure he's not dreaming.

Mr. CHAVEZ: I mean, challenging the largest fast-food industry on the planet and succeeding in that, yeah, sometimes it's unbelievable.

ZWERDLING: Here's what executives at Yum! Brands promise to do. First, Taco Bell will buy tomatoes around Immokalee only from growers who pay farm workers almost double the current going wages. Taco Bell will pay growers more money to cover the difference without raising prices at their restaurants. Second, if farm workers charge that the growers are mistreating them, the company and the farm workers' representatives will investigate, and the company won't buy tomatoes from those growers anymore unless abuses are corrected. Third, farm workers can inspect the company's confidential business records so they can make sure that Yum! is doing what they've promised.

This agreement will affect only a few thousand tomato pickers in just one region of Florida, but Gerardo Chavez says this is the first time that a fast-food company has taken responsibility for the way its suppliers treat farm workers.

Mr. CHAVEZ: It represents a small step for the community of Immokalee, but it represents a huge step for the workers all over the country.

ZWERDLING: The story of the Taco Bell boycott makes a case study that shows how a tiny group of seemingly powerless people can force a multinational corporation to take them seriously.

(Soundbite of buses)

ZWERDLING: You can see some of those people just about every morning before dawn come to this parking lot in Immokalee. We're in southern Florida here, near the Gulf Coast. It's 5 AM. It's still dark. Dozens of battered old school buses have lined up under the palm trees just off the grimy main street, and hundreds of men and women are milling around. They're waiting to sign up with a field boss and head to the farms. Some of the workers are standing in line to fill plastic buckets with ice so they'll have something cold to drink in the fields.

(Soundbite of ice being transferred to bucket)

ZWERDLING: By the end of this day, each man and woman will have picked around two tons of tomatoes and dumped them bucket by bucket into a truck. Lucas Benitez says he was picking with them till a few years ago. He speaks through my interpreter.

Mr. LUCAS BENITEZ (Former Farm Worker): (Through Translator) These people are the people who put food on the tables of American families across the country, but they don't have food to put on their own tables. You know, we are even less than poor.

ZWERDLING: Benitez is one of the leaders of the farm workers coalition. He says listen to the US government's own statistics. The average farm worker in America makes less than $12,000 per year. Almost a third of farm workers' families are officially poor. Benitez came here from Mexico in the 1990s, and he says he knew that picking tomatoes would be hard work, but he didn't expect to make so little money, and he didn't expect growers to mistreat him.

Mr. BENITEZ: (Through Translator) The verbal abuse was, like--well, you might have to put a beep on this on the radio--`You sons of bitches, you assholes, move it! You came here to work. Move it!'

ZWERDLING: In fact, Benitez and other members of the coalition helped the FBI expose employers who were forcing migrants to work in slavery, and the government put them on trial and sent them to jail. A spokesman for the growers' trade association told me, `It's true, some growers have broken the law, but,' he says, `99 percent obey the laws which require them to treat farm workers fairly whether they're here legally or not.'

(Soundbite of bus)

ZWERDLING: But Benitez and other farm workers wanted all the growers to pay more money and improve conditions on the farms, so they held rallies. They went on hunger strikes. Benitez says then, one night five years ago, a group of farm workers was sitting around, and one of them mentioned that he'd just read in the newspaper that Taco Bell buys a lot of its tomatoes here in Immokalee.

Mr. BENITEZ: (Through Translator) And that was when the lightbulb went off.

ZWERDLING: Benitez says they realized the growers they'd been fighting all those years don't have much power anymore. Multinational conglomerates control the food industry now. For instance, Yum! Brands alone owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut and KFC.

Mr. BENITEZ: (Through Translator) I remember this very clearly. It was one of the members in the meeting. I can't really remember his name, but he said, `Well, if Taco Bell's one of the companies that buys the most tomatoes from Immokalee, then maybe they're the ones who are keeping most of the money that we're not making here. Maybe we could boycott them and do that to pressure them to answer us.' `All right, well, let's do a boycott against Taco Bell.'

ZWERDLING: And so on April 1st, 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers asked the whole country to stop eating at Taco Bell. They took their battle to the sidewalk outside the company headquarters in Irvine, California.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Via projected acoustics) We're fighting for the rights of farm workers to work and live in dignity! We're fighting against the penny-pinching, money-grabbing back-breakers who sell bad food and exploit our people.

ZWERDLING: But you know what? Sales at Taco Bell hardly budged. Did you even hear about the boycott? So the organizers decided, `We have to target our protests in a much more focused way so we can pressure Taco Bell where it really hurts.'

(Soundbite of protest)

Group of Protesters: (In unison) Boycott Taco Bell! Boycott Taco Bell!

ZWERDLING: They turned to young people. A student shot this video of a typical protest at the University of Texas in Austin. Students across the country had already been protesting sweatshops overseas. The Taco Bell boycott gave them a human rights issue right here at home. Plus, Taco Bell's marketing specialists unwittingly provoked students to march.

Ms. CATHERINE CUNNINGHAM (Student Organizer, Taco Bell Boycott): This is from Taco Bell's press release of September 23rd, 1999, entitled `The New Age of Hedonism Emerges in 18- to 24-year-olds.'

ZWERDLING: Catherine Cunningham was one of the students who organized the boycott in Austin. She says she got involved after seeing this document which Taco Bell put on its Web site. She keeps reading.

Ms. CUNNINGHAM: `It now takes much more to satisfy the self-indulgent demands of 18- to 24-year-olds than it did five years ago. They have become addicted to constant stimulation and actually feel bored unless their insatiable demand for novelty is being satisfied.' As students, we were offended by this and, you know, wanted to let Taco Bell know that we do care about more than just getting full on value or getting full on their chalupas.

ZWERDLING: Student groups across the country created an uproar: the University of Chicago, UCLA, Duke. Administration officials at those and other schools told us that they kicked Taco Bell concessions off their campuses after students raised a fuss.

Reverend CINDY WEBER: We're a little group tonight, but we'll go ahead and get started now that Tracy(ph) and Kelsey(ph) are here.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, the farm workers wanted to hit Taco Bell in another key market.

Rev. WEBER: And let's begin with a word of prayer.

ZWERDLING: They helped organize Americans who go to church. The Presbyterian Church USA hadn't supported a boycott since 1979, but they asked congregations across the country to help the farm workers in Immokalee. The National Council of Churches and the United Methodist Church backed them, too, and so did Reverend Cindy Weber.

Rev. WEBER: God, we thank you for this night. We thank you for a chance to be together, and we pray that you'd come and be among us...

ZWERDLING: On a recent evening, Reverend Weber presides at the weekly supper at the Jeff Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rev. WEBER: ...in Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Group of Attendees: Amen.

ZWERDLING: The world headquarters of Yum! Brands is only 20 minutes away, so when Rev. Weber publicly insulted the company last year, she made a stir in the local press. Yum! Brands had sent her $527 for the church's food program for the homeless. It was the first time that Yum! had helped. Weber sent that money straight to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to help them fight Yum! Brands.

Rev. WEBER: We felt hypocritical taking their charity when we had been boycotting all these years, and so we made it very clear that, `We don't want your charity; we want your justice.

ZWERDLING: Executives at Yum! Brands had resisted the boycott for years, so a few months ago, farm workers organized one of their biggest protests yet. Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the gates at company headquarters in Louisville. But just before they started demonstrating, company executives made a surprise announcement. Local TV station WLKY reported it this way on March 8th.

(Soundbite of WLKY-TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: A three-year boycott of Taco Bell is over tonight.

Unidentified Woman #3: Today, Taco Bell's parent company Yum! Brands reached an agreement with Florida tomato pickers. In a joint news conference at Yum! Brands headquarters, the two sides said protests this week in Louisville are canceled.

ZWERDLING: Actually, the boycott lasted four years. In any case, one of the company's senior vice presidents, Jonathan Blum, faced the press alongside his former antagonists from Immokalee.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. JONATHAN BLUM (Senior Vice President, Yum! Brands): I'd like to especially welcome several of our friends from the CIW: Lucas Benitez to my left...

ZWERDLING: In the years before this press conference, Yum! executives kept saying publicly that, `We don't believe it's our place to get involved in the ways that their suppliers treat farm workers.' But Blum said something very different at this press conference.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. BLUM: With today's announcement, we are taking a leadership role within our industry to be part of the solution and have agreed to lend our support and work together with the CIW for social responsibility.

ZWERDLING: I asked Jonathan Blum if we could talk about all this in person, but he said he'd only give an interview over the phone. Blum told me the boycott did not pressure Yum! to cave in to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In fact, he said the boycott never affected their business, and industry sales figures suggest he's right. But he says the boycott did teach the company's executives that the farm workers really needed their help.

Mr. BLUM: The farm workers brought to our attention the working conditions on the tomato fields in Florida that we weren't aware of because we don't employ these workers directly.

ZWERDLING: Jonathan Blum says Yum! Brands would have helped the farm workers sooner, but they had trouble finding tomato growers in Immokalee who'd go along. As of today, they've found two. So at the moment, these new policies affect only a few thousand pickers around Immokalee out of almost two million field workers across the nation. The farm workers' leaders are trying to expand that. They're going to press Yum! Brands to adopt the new policies at all their fast-food companies, not just Taco Bell, but at KFC and Pizza Hut, too. And the farm workers have asked McDonald's and Burger King to follow. The Immokalee workers say if the fast-food companies balk, then maybe they should get ready for the next round of boycotts. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, making sure that the paper agreement actually works in the fields. There are pictures, background documents and a time line at our Web site, npr.org.

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