Written by W. Evan Golder
A four-year consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants ended on March 8 with an announcement that the restaurant's parent company, Yum Brands, based in Louisville, Ky., would take significant steps to improve income and working conditions for those who pick tomatoes used by the fast food giant.
The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- the farm worker organization that mounted and organized the successful boycott -- announced the victorious conclusion at a press conference.
According to CIW, Taco Bell has agreed to a "groundbreaking agreement" in which the company will pay "the penny-per-pound surcharge demanded by workers and will work with CIW to raise farm labor standards in the supply chain and across the industry as a whole."
Edith Rasell, the UCC's minister for labor relations and community economic development, hailed the news as "an important victory after a long, four-year struggle."
"We can be proud that the UCC was the first national denomination to endorse the boycott, and that many UCC congregations all over the country worked and prayed in support of this struggle for justice," Rasell said.
In July 2001, just three months after the boycott's launch, the UCC's General Synod, meeting in Kansas City, Mo., became the first denominational body to endorse the farm workers' campaign against Taco Bell.
In subsequent years, the UCC was joined by several religious groups including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Methodist Church and the National Council of Churches.
"We can also learn some important lessons," Rasell said, noting that, in addition to Taco Bell, Yum Brands also owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, A&W and Long John Silvers. "It is a multi-billion dollar, multinational firm. It is the largest fast-food company in the world."
"The vision of farm workers confronting Yum is a bit like David confronting Goliath," she said. "But the success of this struggle illustrates that when committed, faithful people come together to work for justice, even in the face of powerful opposition, there may be nothing we cannot achieve. Our God of justice is a powerful God. Another world is possible."
The boycott was launched in April 2001, Rasell said, because Florida's tomato pickers are paid just one-third of what they received 25 years ago and "face harsh conditions and indignities in the fields."
However, in a statement from CIW, the farm worker organization now referred to Taco Bell as setting "a new standard of social responsibility for the fast-food industry."
Emil Brolick, Taco Bell president, said, "We recognize that Florida tomato workers do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as employees in other industries, and there is a need for reform."
"With this agreement, we will be the first in our industry to directly help improve farm workers' wages," Brolick said. "And we pledge to make this commitment real by buying only from Florida growers who pass this penny-per-pound payment entirely on to the farm workers, and by working jointly with the CIW and our suppliers to monitor the pass-through for compliance."
The Taco Bell celebration comes only six months after another successful, hard-fought victory for farm workers.
In September 2004, a five-year boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina, initiated by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), ended successfully with the signing of a union contract. The signing of that agreement took place at Community UCC in Raleigh, N.C., in recognition of the UCC's longstanding support of justice for farm workers.
Speaking about the dual victories within a six-month span, Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, said, "This is a significant accomplishment for the farm workers at a time when we haven't heard much good news for the poor."