Area congregations ask Publix to join Fair Food table during holidays

ejohnson@bradenton.comNovember 24, 2012 

VENICE -- A penny per pound. That's what advocates for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are asking of Publix this holiday season.

So far, 11 large corporate buyers have joined the coalition's Fair Food Program, in which tomato buyers agree to pay an extra penny for every pound of the produce to improve conditions for farmworkers.

But groups across the southeast United States participated in the Thanksgiving Week of Supermarket Action to ask Publix Super Markets to become the 12th member to "join the table." The Florida-based grocery chain would join the likes of Yum! Brands, McDonald's, Whole Foods Market, Aramark, and Trader Joe's.

"This whole week, especially in Florida, they're calling on Publix to basically respect the dignity of workers who make the food we share on this holiday possible," said Claire Comiskey, who works for Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida.

Seventeen representatives from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Venice gathered Nov. 16 to encourage their local Publix manager to ask for the chain's participation.

"Unitarian Universalists have a long history of standing up for the oppressed in our society," said Kindra Muntz, Issues for the Common Good Committee co-chair at the Venice congregation. "Our church and many others have contributed to the Immokalee Workers for many years, but just giving money doesn't solve the problem. We need to address the problems systemically and not just keep on helping with gifts and money."

Those problems include sexual harassment, physical abuse, lack of food and water, crowded living

conditions and retaliation when complaints are filed.

On its website, Publix states that the company views the issue as a "controversy between an employer and its employees."

"We don't believe 'just paying the penny' is the right thing to do -- for Publix or our suppliers," the statement reads, asking tomato suppliers to "put it in the price" because they do not directly pay outside employees.

Comiskey said it is not that simple.

"Growers don't have the power to raise prices themselves because they're pressured by buyers," Comiskey said. "This is the farthest thing from a labor dispute."

Approximately 30 events, similar to that in Venice, took place at Publix locations in Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee the week prior to Thanksgiving.

Muntz said three of the Unitarian Universalist's seven principles have led to the denomination's actions to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and respect for interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

"It's going to take more awareness of the public to help request and add their voices to this important cause. I don't think many of the public have any idea that workers are beaten and treated like slaves," Muntz said. "They deserve human rights."

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida have successfully gotten 90 percent of Florida's tomato industry to join.

"This is a partnership between buyers, growers and workers where companies pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes as a premium that goes through accounting and is paid to workers," Comiskey said. "The reason it works is there is a market consequence. The coalition can call the buyers and say this grower is not complying."

Because of this, advocates believe Publix must come on board.

"People of faith, students and community groups have been absolutely vital to getting where we are now," said Jordan Buckley, who also works with Interfaith Action.

These rallies have not always been positive. On Sept. 1, a pastor was issued a one-year ban from a Sarasota Publix after going inside to buy a sandwich while wearing a coalition T-shirt.

Muntz said their experience was not unpleasant, although they were asked to leave the property and stand on the sidewalk.

"The manager came outside and was very cordial," Muntz said. "We gave her our letters and she spoke with us for a few minutes."

Several organizations from Manatee, Sarasota and surrounding counties are meeting at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at Faith Lutheran Church, 7750 Beneva Rd., Sarasota, to discuss strategy for the upcoming grand re-opening of Publix on Longboat Key.

"I think it's certainly a time for reflection for Publix," Buckley said. "We're hoping this will be a time of year when Publix might soften its heart to think about this harvest and who made it possible and for the decision makers to think about how their company could make a difference."

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.

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