The National Council of Churches announced its endorsement of the boycotts to two companies in an effort to improve wages and labor conditions for their workers, during its General Assembly, Nov. 6.
The NCC, with 36 mainline Protestant, African American, Orthodox and Episcopal member denominations comprising of 50 million Christians across the U.S., is the largest U.S. religious body to join the boycotts against Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickles.
The national consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products began in March 2001 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. The Coalition launched the boycott following Taco Bell’s refusal to address exploitation in the fields of its tomato suppliers, particularly those of Six L’s Packing Company, one of the United States’ largest tomato growers.
Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a Florida farm worker and member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, compared the labor used by Taco Bell to slavery.
“And in the most extreme circumstances we find modern day slavery,” said Chavez, speaking in Spanish through an intepreter. “By modern day slavery I mean people forced to work at gunpoint. To confront this situation we’ve had work strikes, marches, hunger strikes for up to 30 days – and what we’ve realized is that the agricultural industry is not interested in us. We’ve realized that the only way to achieve justice for thousands of farm workers is to reach up the ladder (to those) profiting from farm workers’ labor and poverty.” That’s where Taco Bell comes in, he said.
“We are not saying Taco Bell is guilty of slavery,” Chavez said, “but when we ask Taco Bell, ‘can you guarantee to us those tomatoes weren’t picked by slave labor,’ the answer is ‘no.’ That’s precisely because they have never paid attention to the workers who make their profits possible. That’s why I am here today.”
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and affiliate of the NCC noted the need to take action; the last boycott endorsed by the NCC was in 1988, against the Royal Dutch/Shell companies for their connections to the apartheid in South Africa.
“Anytime a Christian community comes together and seeks to exercise economic justice in this way, it is because there is a very serious injustice that cannot be resolved in any other way,” said Kirkpatrick.
The boycotts call for Taco Bell to convene in three way talks with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and tomato suppliers to address exploitation issues. It also asks for immediate increases in farm worker wages, as well as the establishment of a code of conduct that would ensure workers’ fundamental labor rights.
Lydia Veliko of the United Church of Christ brought the second boycott, placed on Mt. Olive Pickles, forward.
“Casting our option with the poor is our best action as people of faith,” she said. “It’s heartening to me to see two farm worker situations raised up at this particular Assembly. The people who stoop for tomatoes and cucumbers, climb for the apples and peaches support our huge agribusiness and put food on our tables. They ask us not for charity but solidarity.”
The initial boycott against Mt. Olive Pickles began in 1999, through the efforts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. The boycott is currently endorsed by 300 organizations outside the NCC.