LOUISVILLE — The stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA prayed for the 150 workers and protestors who marched eight miles across Louisville in a rally to give basic rights to tomato pickers, Feb. 27. The march was organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as part of a national “Taco Bell Truth Tour,” which has garnered the support of several church and pro-rights groups across the U.S.
“We share at the very deepest level a common commitment to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for justice for the farm workers, for God’s peace and justice in the world,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who has visited Immokalee and seen the workers living and working conditions. “We are grateful to God that you are beginning this Truth Tour here in Louisville at the Presbyterian Center, where we share so deeply with you in these common values.”
The eight mile march began from the national offices of the Presbyterian Church USA, and ended at the headquarters of Yum! Brands, Inc., Taco Bell’s parent company. The workers blame Yum! and Taco Bell for the mistreatment of the workers who pick tomatoes for their nationwide chain.
At the “finish line” outside Yum! headquarters, workers built a towering pyramid out of some 120 buckets to show how much one has to pick to earn $50 dollars in a day.
"The pyramid of buckets is to celebrate the strength and the labor of the farm workers you have produced the wealth (of Yum!),” said Presbyterian Stephen Bartlett, a member of the local planning committee for the march.
At the going rate of 40-40 cents per 32 pound bucket, the workers have to pick two tons of tomatoes to receive a meager $50.
"Maybe, if you’ve done pretty well that day you might come back to your house with $50,” said march leader Lucas Benitez. “But you would have picked two tons of tomatoes to get that $50. If you get sick and you don’t have health insurance, you’d have to go and pay that out of your own pocket. Even if you work overtime, you don’t have the right to overtime pay. Those are some of the reasons we are here today.”
The average retail price of tomatoes rose from 67 cents to $1.32 cents per pound over the past 20 years. Therefore, the workers have asked for a 1 cent per pound increase for their labor.
“It would increase it to something livable,” farm worker Jose Antonio Martinez said. “Not really very high, but at least it’s acceptable.”
Dozens of sympathetic Presbyterians participated in the event, and several Louisville congregations helped house, equip and feed the workers, who had made their way to Kentucky from Florida and planned to go on to California for a March 5 demonstration at Taco Bell’s headquarters in Irvine.
“I think it’s important to support the farm workers,” said Myrtle Bingham, a participant who is an elder at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville. “They’re still working for wages that they were making 20 years ago. It’s hard labor, and they’re living in poverty conditions, and that’s not acceptable in this country.”
The demonstrators included members of numerous local churches, several national staff members and other church leaders, students, union members, farmers and other Christians from around the nation.
“Taco Bell is being unfair,” said Aramie Bloom a 23-year-old business major at the University of Louisville, who was carrying a sign that said, “One More Penny.”
“They’re not taking responsibility for who is providing their product and we just want to ask them to change. They have a responsibility socially to these workers and to their families and that’s why we’re here.”
According to the Presbyterian News Service, the Presbyterian Center was chosen as the starting point of the march because the PCUSA has been a strong supporter of the CIW during its nearly three-year-long national boycott.
The Rev. Marian McClure, director of the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division, said that the farm workers’ situation exemplifies a Biblical vision: “It is a vision in which everyone has enough and in which no one is exploited,” she said. “So we thank you for reminding us of that vision, a vision in which Jesus told us that the way we treat each other is the way we treat him.”
McClure also spoke out to the Yum! Brands staff.
“What would really be yummy,” she said, “would be a meal to celebrate that Yum! has agreed to come to the table with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers,” she said, referring to the Louisville-based company that also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W and Long John Silver’s. “That Yum! has agreed to ... sit down and work out a more just living for the tomato workers and everyone who is part of the coalition.”
Farm worker Lucas Benitez called the PC(USA) “a pillar of support” for the workers.
“It’s time for us as farm workers to stop being second-class citizens,” the farm worker said before the march began. “It’s time for us as farm workers to be seen as first-class citizens who put the food that we eat on the tables of this nation. Today we are going to Yum! Brands, not to ask, but to demand what belongs to us. To have a place at this table.”
Eighteen-year-old David Wigger, a high school senior and member of Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville, said it was hearing about the workers’ sub-poverty wages and poor working conditions that prompted him to join in the daylong event. “I feel that I should try to do something, even if it’s something small, to help them out,” he said.
Demonstrators, including Wigger, carried signs that said, “One More Penny”, “Taco Bell Exploits Farm Workers” and “Stop Sweat Shops Now!” Other demonstrators chanted “Boycott Taco Bell” and “End Slavery Now.” Many of them wore buttons that displayed a line slashed through a picture of the small Chihuahua used in Taco Bell’s television ads.
For more information about the boycott, visit the Web sites of the workers’ coalition, the PC(USA) and the National Farm Worker Ministry.