(UPDATE COVERAGE, June 10) Shortly after garnering support from two growers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has begun pressuring Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., to participate in deals to increase pay for Florida tomato workers.

The coalition (CIW) started a letter-writing campaign to convince Publix to pay its farmworkers an additional penny per-pound.

Maria Brous, Publix’s director of media and community relations, issued a statement saying that tomatoes are just one of more than 35,000 products Publix sells.

“With so many products available for sale to consumers, the reality is that there is the potential for countless ongoing disputes between suppliers, their employees and/or their unions, at any one time,” she said in the statement. “Publix has a long history of non-intervention in such disputes.”

Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas, said June 4 that two Florida organic vegetable grower-shippers joined the retailer’s efforts to support the coalition’s penny initiative.

Immokalee tomato labor group pressures Publix
Bob Spencer, West Coast Tomato Inc.

Libba Letton, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, said the agreements with Alderman Farms Sales Corp., Boynton Beach, Fla., and Chambersburg, Pa.-based Lady Moon Farms Inc., which has a Punta Gorda, Fla., operation, has the retailer paying them a premium to distribute to its workers.

Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., which has production in Immokalee, said tomato growers pay workers well above government regulations and do not mistreat their workers.

“People are free to say what they want to say but the problem is, after a while, the CIW starts to lose credibility because all they do is make these wild charges, but they don’t back them up with any proof,” Spencer said. “We have nothing to gain by mistreating the people who allow us to grow our crops and send them to market.”

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said the tomato industry is caught in a situation where third-party entities such as the CIW, which is a charity, have acted like a union in demanding higher worker wages.

Immokalee tomato labor group pressures Publix
           Reggie Brown, Florida Tomato Exchange     

He said the industry doesn’t deal directly with the CIW. According to a state government opinion, if the industry negotiates with the group, the CIW becomes a labor union.

CIW spokesman Lucas Benitez contends growers won’t improve worker wages because they are caught in a cost/price squeeze.

 â€œWe have put a great deal of thought and effort into addressing growers’ concerns and developing a campaign based on the principle that we should not have to fight over table scraps to address the longstanding problem of farm labor poverty and abuse, but rather that there are enough resources in the food industry as a whole to allow us to move forward together,” he said.

After national boycotts against some quick service restaurant chains, the CIW has secured deals with Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway.

 â€œThey’ve used very aggressive tactics with these QSRs in terms of shutting down restaurants, picketing, disrupting their business and forcing them to deal with this rogue organization,” said industry consultant Don Goodwin, owner and president of Golden Sun Marketing, Minnetrista, Minn.

“You have people like a QSR reluctantly having to come to these groups and give them a penny a pound when it buys those tomatoes from a foodservice broadliner who buys from a repacker who buys from the tomato growers,” he said.