(UPDATED, Nov. 10) The Center for Union Facts, a group critical of unions, has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service asking the government to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
The complaint claims the CIW is avoiding federal labor-union laws and abusing its tax-exempt status by classifying itself as a charitable organization instead of a labor union, according to a news release.
“CIW’s bread and butter is harassment and extortion — which is hardly a charitable activity,” Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, said in the release.
“The IRS needs to strip CIW of its bogus charity status and put the group on the path toward playing by the same rules as Big Labor bullies.”
The complaint charges that CIW does not operate for public benefit, but rather for the financial benefit of its members.
The members of CIW, the complaint says, are agriculture workers for whom CIW attempts to get raises.
Because CIW is classified as a charity, it avoids rules restricting the conduct of unions, according to the Union Facts complaint.
For example, the release said that federal labor law prohibits unions from picketing “secondary” targets, or those who do business with a targeted entity.
However, that is how CIW operates, according to the release, which charges that CIW has a history of street protests against secondary companies (restaurants and grocers). CIW, according to the charge, essentially demands targeted companies pay the employees of another company.
The complaint said that companies that don’t agree to these demands face boycotts, protests and other pressure tactics.
Last year, CIW called for a boycott of Wendy’s after the company refused to sign on to the Fair Food Program, according to the complaint. Protesters picketed a Wendy’s restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, near the company’s corporate headquarters, and protesters also went to the home of Wendy’s board chairman.
That campaign remains active. According to the group’s website, on Jan. 18, faith leaders will join together for National Day of Fasting and Witness in protest of Wendy’s executives’ “ongoing and unconscionable refusal” to join the Fair Food Program.
In a blog post last year, Liliana Esposito, chief communications officer for Wendy’s, said CIW requires participants to pay an additional fee directly to the tomato harvesters that work for the growers, on top of the price Wendy’s already pays for the product.
“We have always prided ourselves on our relationships with industry-leading suppliers who share our commitment to quality, integrity and ethics,” she said in the post.
“We support the goals of any organization that seeks to improve human rights, but we don’t believe we should pay another company’s employees — just as we do not pay factory workers, truck drivers or maintenance personnel that work for our other suppliers.”
She said the company primarily purchases winter tomatoes from Mexico.
Wendy’s said in an e-mail that its Supplier Code of Conduct includes assurances and requirements related to human rights and labor practices.
In 2012, Trader Joe’s was threatened with protests at 33 stores by activists. That threat went away after the after the company agreed to join the Fair Food Program, according to the complaint.
CIW has also targeted Publix (not yet part of Fair Food Program), Taco Bell (joined in 2005), and McDonald’s (joined in 2007).
Publix officials said last year that they would love to pay tomato workers more but with more than 40,000 products sold in their stores, it doesn’t want to be drawn into numerous employee and employer disputes.
Berman said in an e-mail that companies subjected to protests by CIW shouldn’t give in to their demands.
“Giving money to a bully only encourages more shakedowns,” Berman said. “At the very least, no company should surrender to CIW’s harassment.”
Julia Perkins, Fair Food Program Education Coordinator for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said the complaint to the IRS was a “standard page from the corporate public relations playbook.”
“For organizations involved in reform of the food industry over the past couple of decades, from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the Humane Society, being attacked by Rick Berman has become pretty much par for the course,” Perkins said in an e-mail.
Founded in 1993, CIW launched the Fair Food Program in 2001, first targeting Taco Bell. In the program, participating buyers paid a penny per pound more for Florida tomatoes from participating growers.
Participating buyers, according to the CIW website, include Subway, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and others. In 2015, the Fair Food Program expanded into tomatoes in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, in addition to Florida strawberries and peppers, according to the CIW website.