Chanting slogans such as “freedom for farmworkers” and “down with the king,” a group of students gathered outside Burger King on Monday to protest against the low wages paid to the farmworkers who pick tomatoes for the multinational corporation.
The protestors carried signs with messages such as “no more abuses” and “end the tyranny in the fields.” One protestor was wearing an outfit similar to Burger King’s monarch. He sat on a throne made of wood, upon which the protestors carried him in marches to the Library and the Phyllis P. Marshall Center. A wooden painting of the king was also used as a target in a makeshift water balloon-throwing contest.
Monday’s protest marked the birthday of Cesar Chavez, founder of United Farmworkers – the first union for farmworkers in the United States. In honor of Chavez’s legacy of fighting for justice for farmworkers, members of Students for Social Justice (SSJ) staged the protest to demand that the company give a penny more per pound of tomatoes to the farmworkers of Immokalee, Fla., who harvest 90 percent of the tomatoes used by fast-food companies in the United States.
Farmworkers who pick tomatoes for Burger King are demanding a raise in the picking piece rate. The piece rate is the price paid to pickers for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the rate has not seen a significant change for nearly 30 years. The piece rate was 40 cents per bucket in 1980 and is an average of 45 cents per bucket today – 20 years later.
The CIW Web site describes work and life for the tomato pickers in Immokalee as “looking for work before dawn, picking for 10 to 12 hours a day under Florida’s relentless sun, and returning after a long day to the one-room cinderblock apartments and broken-down trailers that are home during Immokalee’s eight to nine month-long season.”
Kaileen Schleit, a sophomore majoring in art, chairs SSJ’s promotional committee. SSJ was formed last year, with the mission of bringing more fair trade products to campus. Schleit learned about farmworkers after she visited Immokalee.
“It was like being in a third-world country, but it was right in Florida, two hours away from campus,” she said. “The farmworkers are where everything starts. They’re the producers of the tomatoes. They do all the hard labor work for us so we can eat the tomatoes and they get paid next to nothing for it.”
“They should be paid a wage that they can live off because the conditions over there are very poor. There are six or seven people to a small room, and they pay high rent just because the land owners can get away with it,” Schleit said.
Lauren Maxwell, a senior majoring in international studies and vice president of SSJ, said her faith informs her activism.
“I’m a Christ-follower and I can’t dichotomize justice from following Jesus,” she said. “A couple of years ago, I joined a group called Members Empowering True Awareness (META). Some members of the group were from migrant families, and that’s how I got exposed to that. The focus of SSJ is to bring fair trade to campus. We just want people to think about what they’re buying.”
Onlookers on campus were largely unmoved by the protest, however. Lawrence Leverette and Marvin Chatman were eating at the tables outside of the Burger King when the protest began. They were skeptical about the message of SSJ.
“I probably wouldn’t listen to them because I have my own beliefs, but I want them to pay their workers. Burger King people have to make their money though,” Leverette, a junior majoring in communications, said.
“I think it’s a business,” said Chatman, a junior majoring in sociology. “It’s bigger than what they’re telling us. It’ll be something I’ll need to get more information about. I think college students have their own problems, though.”
Others who passed the protest were skeptical as well.
“I just didn’t get the whole tomato thing. I guess Burger King is exploiting their farmworkers. They’re not really telling me anything. It’s just all this yelling,” said John Sushko, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering.
“I see a lot of people that don’t like capitalism,” said Jorge Capdevila, a sophomore majoring in biomedical science who walked by the protest drinking a soda from Burger King. Capdevila’s buying habits will not be changed by the protest.
“I don’t like tomatoes,” he said.
Some students were even annoyed by the protest.
Brittany Newkirk, a freshman who has not yet decided a major, described the protest as “obnoxious and annoying.”
One student expressed frustration with the idea of farmworkers demanding a higher wage.
“They’re getting paid. What are they yelling about? I bet every one of those Mexicans ain’t got a green card. They’re tripping,” Chris Secere, a junior majoring in exercise science, said.
Justin Kampert, a junior majoring in English, described the protest as “a little entertaining” calling it “something to look at.”
Despite the criticisms of many passersby, SSJ members who took part in the protest said they were able to reach many students.
“I’m getting a good amount of signatures,” Erik Myxter, a sophomore political science major, said. “It’s amazing how Immokalee is so close to Tampa and people don’t know about it.”
“We’re getting attention. A lot of people are signing the petition.” Ernesto Fernandez, a senior majoring in religious studies and SSJ member said.
The protests garnered “five or six pages” of signatures, Schleit said.