United Coalition of Immokalee Workers held a rally in front of the Taco Bell corporate offices on March 5 to protest the alleged unfair labor conditions of agricultural workers in Immokalee, Fla. These workers are responsible for picking the tomatoes used by Taco Bells nationwide. They arrived at Taco Bell headquarters after a 44-mile march that began in Los Angeles at the Delhi Center and ended in Irvine, on the corner of Von Karman and Main Street.
Student groups, including MEChA of UCI and human rights groups, gathered in union with the CIW to show their support for the cause.
Crystal Gonzalez, a fifth-year anthropology major and a member of MEChA of UCI explained her reasons for participating in the march.
‘We’ve been working with Immokalee Coalition for the past three years and we support everything that they’re working for and working against,’ Gonzalez said.
At the rally, workers and supporters carried picket signs that read ‘Yo NO quiero Taco Bell’ and ‘Boycott the Bell.’ Escorted by police vehicles, they started the rally by marching down Von Karman. Afterwards, performers including Lila Downs, whose music can be found on the Grammy-winning ‘Frida’ soundtrack, and hip-hop artist Boots Riley took to the stage to demonstrate their support for CIW.
Emotions ran high as hundreds of supporters could be heard chanting ‘Boycott Taco Bell!’ The rally is held annually in an effort to inform communities of the unjust conditions that farm workers are forced to work in. However, according to Gonzalez this is the first year that a march from Los Angeles to Irvine was included. Gonzalez marched three and a half miles from Santa Ana to Irvine.
Gerardo Reyes, an agricultural worker from Immokalee, Fla., described the conditions that he and his fellow workers are forced to work under.
‘We are here because Taco Bell is one of the largest corporations that we pick tomatoes for in Immokalee, Fla. Those of us working don’t receive any benefits. The conditions and wages have been the same for over 20 years, and often we are forced to work under violent conditions,’ Reyes said.
He explained the nature of these violent conditions.
‘The most extreme cases resemble modern slavery. The workers are forced to work at gun point and against their will,’ Reyes said.’Taco Bell is the largest company involved in this and they are gaining profit from these types of situations.’
Sally George, manager of public relations at the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, disputes the company’s involvement with these types of working conditions.
‘We respect their First Amendment rights but we feel their protests are misdirected at us. We’ve investigated the matter and we discovered that over the past three years we have paid 15 cents more per pound than the one cent the workers themselves are being paid,’ George said. ‘Because we don’t have contracts with the suppliers, we can’t control how much they pay their workers.’
George explained the efforts being made on behalf of Taco Bell to try and alleviate the problem.
‘We have established a code of conduct that specifically includes anti-slavery guidelines,’ George said.
Reyes countered this by explaining that while Taco Bell is not directly responsible for the harsh working conditions, they could be doing more to try and eliminate the problem.
‘We can’t say that Taco Bell is directly responsible for the slavery. But we asked them if they can guarantee that none of the produce they use will be grown in violation of human rights. They couldn’t guarantee that,’ Reyes said.
Mayor of Irvine, Larry Agran sent his executive assistant, UCI alumus Danny Hall to read a letter on his behalf. In it he expressed his hope that both sides, through peaceful dialogue, would be able to find some type of resolution.
The letter stated, ‘Our public safety department is committed to affording the coalition of Immokalee workers every opportunity under the law to exercise their constitutional right to free speech and peaceful assembly in Irvine. I hope and trust that channels of communication will be open to a productive discussion addressing the plight of farm workers everywhere.’
Hall expressed his own personal convictions toward the plight of the Immokalee farm workers.
‘Personally, I think it’s an atrocity that we have people living basically for slave wages in this country. Demonstrations like this are absolutely essential in order to make that kind of positive change,’ Hall said.
According to Bardo Martinez, a member of MEChA of Cerritos College, the efforts of the CIW have not gone unnoticed by Taco Bell’s shareholders, 35 of whom voted last year to look into the issue.
Also, according to Tamara Henry, a fourth-year history major and member of the Social Justice Alliance at UCLA, Taco Bell is beginning to be held responsible for the unfair conditions by which their produce is grown.
‘We recently got our associated student body director of services on UCLA’s campus to agree to pass a resolution in which they held Taco Bell accountable for the conditions in their fields. They said [Taco Bell] had to fund a third-party investigation into those conditions within a certain time period,’ Henry said.
‘Just the fact that Taco Bell came to our meetings on UCLA campus shows that they feel this issue in general is enough of a threat that they have to take some action.’
Reyes is also confident that progress is being made. When asked how much of a positive impact he felt this rally and march would have, Reyes remained optimistic.
‘We’ve carried our message throughout the community. Each person that hears us will ask themselves, ‘Why Taco Bell?’ When someone starts asking that question, and they hear our reasons for marching, it will begin to awaken their consciousness to the situation and maybe they will stop wanting to eat at Taco Bell. This will increase pressure on Taco Bell to do something about it,’ Reyes said.