Written by J. Bennett Guess
¡Si, si se puede! - yes, it can be done!
The name of this column - "Never Ourselves Alone" - demands of me, I think, some ink space about the successful ending of the UCC-supported Taco Bell boycott. It's a people-powered victory worthy of widespread church applause.
When the four-year boycott ended on March 8, with Taco Bell's no-longer-entrenched president saying, "We will be the first in our industry to directly help improve farm workers' wages," the church of Jesus Christ stood tall on the shoulders of countless, martyred saints of the faith - and of the fields.
It's been about four years ago since I stood at the simple, but monumental grave of United Farm Workers' founder Cesar Chavez in La Paz, Calif. There, at the UFW's historic campground and headquarters - a living museum of sorts to Chavez's lifelong witness for justice - I saw firsthand how Chavez taught that solidarity is both a political strategy and a religious value.
Chavez knew that impoverished, often-invisible farmhands alone could not change the economic and political system that rendered them society's throw-away workers. Traditional strike tactics would not succeed. Instead, what was needed was a steadfast coalition of people of good will - people with the capacity of mind and heart to learn of the farm workers' plight and stand with them.
The UFW's strategy has been successfully modeled again and again by farm worker organizations, including Florida's Coalition of Immokalee Workers which launched and led the more-than-uphill Taco Bell effort in April 2001.
Similarly, the Toledo, Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, led by the courageous Baldemar Valesquez, waged a hard-fought effort against the Mt. Olive Pickle Company on behalf of North Carolina's cucumber pickers. It also ended successfully less than six months ago.
In both instances, the UCC was the first national religious body to join the farm workers' campaigns. And, fortunately, we were not the last. One by one, as communities of faith signed on, the balance of power tilted in God's favor.
In the case of Taco Bell, those in Florida who picked tomatoes for the fast-food giant were paid only 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket, the same per-piece rate offered 30 years ago. At that wage, farm workers would have to pick and haul two tons of tomatoes daily to earn $50.
But, in defiance of this injustice, countless congregations and members did what they could, when they could. Youth groups refused to get off buses when unsuspecting drivers stopped at Taco Bell restaurants. Churches held weekly or monthly vigils outside Taco Bell outlets. UCC members flooded the chain's corporate offices with cards and letters, especially at Christmas. Pastors raised the issue from their pulpits, and parishioners participated in rallies and "truth tours."
"[It's] a bit like David confronting Goliath," said Edith Rasell, the UCC's national staffperson who gave much time and energy to the boycott on our collective behalf.
Yes, I know, there were some in our churches who grumbled. A vocal few argued that we shouldn't be involved in such controversial things. But, in the end, God's poorest ones got a much-needed raise - and a good measure of dignity. I think Jesus would be proud of our wise-as-serpents, gentle-as-doves approach.
"For a lot of people, these complex issues seem very distant - half a continent away. But the [boycott] put a human face on this one," said a pastor to United Church News in 2002. "Time and time again, when we put a human face on something important, people own it."
Yes, in solidarity, we owned it. And it made all the difference.
See related news story.