Written by J. Bennett Guess
The Rev. Michael Vosier, co-pastor of Epiphany UCC in St. Louis, addresses a public witness in Louisville, Ky., in front of Tricon headquarters, parent company of Taco Bell, during a shareholder meeting in May. Erin Balleine photo.
Since the General Synod endorsed a national boycott of Taco Bell in 2001, a growing number of UCC people have taken to the notion that fast food also should be fair food.
The UCC is considered a leader in the movement to support underpaid farmworkers and their campaign against Taco Bell and its parent company, the Tricon Corporation, says Roberta Perry, a regional organizer with the National Farm Worker Ministry and a member of First Congregational UCC in Orange City, Fla.
Workers and supporters are asking for better wages for the tomato pickers who are employed by the SixL's Packaging Company in Immokalee, Fla., a major Taco Bell supplier. Workers are paid 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket they pick, the same piece rate paid in 1978. They must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to earn $50 in a day.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking Taco Bell to pay an additional penny per pound, which would essentially double the piece rate. Taco Bell, which reports annual earnings of over $5 billion, refuses to negotiate with the tomato pickers.
Angered by Taco Bell's silence, UCC members are increasingly participating and promoting the boycott.
Members of First Congregational UCC in Memphis, Tenn., are participating in weekly protests each Saturday at different Taco Bell restaurants. The Rev. Cheryl Cornish estimates that 95 percent of her congregation knows about and participates in the boycott. "No one should have to struggle in the conditions that these workers face," she says.
Jim Therrien, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, said that, before reading about the boycott in United Church News, he would eat at Taco Bell at least three times a week. "I can account for at least $60 a month they are losing from me alone," he says.
Dennis Apuan, chair of the Justice and Peace Ministry at First Congregational UCC in Colorado Springs, Colo., says that the passion of his church's younger members has energized the commitment of the whole congregation.
In June, during a nine-hour bus trip to the Rocky Mountain Conference Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, the youth were insistent that the group stay clear of any Taco Bell restaurants.
At the UCC's Southeastern Regional Youth Event in July, the youth vowed to return to their congregations with new ideas about how to encourage the boycott, says Erin Balleine, Assistant for Youth Development and Policy with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries. Likewise, in June, about 100 youth from the UCC's Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries (PAAM) rallied in front of Taco Bell's Irvine, Calif., headquarters.
In May, during the company's annual shareholders meeting in Louisville, Ky., Justice and Witness Ministries organized a prayerful public witness that drew justice advocates from five states, and St. Andrew's UCC in Louisville prepared food for the Immokalee workers who came to town to share their stories. Meanwhile, the UCC's Office for Corporate Social Responsibility utilized a shareholder resolution process to put pressure on the company.
"I can't say enough about the strong support received from UCC churches," Perry says.
Earlier in the year, the Immokalee workers took their "No Quiero Taco Bell" Truth Tour [I don't want Taco Bell] campaign to 15 cities across the United States, beginning on Feb. 28 in Tampa, Fla., and ending on March 10 at Taco Bell's offices in Irvine, Calif.
All along the way, Perry says, the workers were enthusiastically supported by UCC members and congregations who visited with them, passed out leaflets, participated in public actions, made phone calls and wrote letters, and supported the workers with housing and food.
Because of the Truth Tour, young people at First Congregational UCC in Albuquerque, N.M., were able to put a face with the issue.
"For a lot of people, these complex issues seem very distant—half a continent away. But the Truth Tour put a human face on this one," says the Rev. Randy Deckwerth, senior pastor. "Time and time again, when we put a human face on something important, people own it. I hear it over and over now, 'We can't go to Taco Bell!'"
In California, eight members of the First Congregational UCC in Long Beach attended the closing rally that drew 1,500 supporters. The Rev. Jerry Stinson, senior pastor, said his congregation continues to educate its members and build support for the boycott.
For Lauren Korshak, a member of Mt. Sinai UCC in Long Island, N.Y., and a sophomore at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., organizing a "Boot the Bell" campaign on campus is her way of demonstrating the need for living wages.
"Taco Bell intentionally advertises to reach my age group, but once people understand what's going on, they are passionate because more and more students are believing that everyone deserves a living wage," Korshak says.
The boycott found new energy this summer when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to join the effort. The Rev. Noelle Damico, a UCC minister in New York, has been hired to organize and mobilize Presbyterian support.
For information on how you or your congregation can support farmworkers and the Taco Bell boycott, contact Edith Rasell, minister for labor relations and community economic development for Justice and Witness Ministries: 216-736-3709; email@example.com.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess hasn't eaten a Chalupa Supreme for two years, but still eats Mexican food about three times a week—elsewhere.