November 29, 2007 The Pump Handle 4Comment

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has a powerful op ed in today’s New York Times on Burger King’s role in ensuring that migrant farm workers receive sub-minimum wages.

The migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in South Florida have one of the nation’s most backbreaking jobs. For 10 to 12 hours a day, they pick tomatoes by hand, earning a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket. During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes. For their efforts, this holiday season many of them are about to get a 40 percent pay cut.

Schlosser writes that Taco Bell and McDonald’s have agreed to increase the wages of its tomato pickers to about 77 cents per bucket. “But Burger King, whose headquarters are in Florida, has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny — and its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.”

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange [representing 90% of the state’s growers] has threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages. The organization claims that such a surcharge would violate “federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering.” It has not explained how that extra penny would break those laws; nor has it explained why other surcharges routinely imposed by the growers (for things like higher fuel costs) are perfectly legal.

Burger King tries to pretend it has no role in this outrage, but it is actually central to the dispute. If Burger King went along with Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the growers would have little ability to insist on these outrageously low wages.

The prominent role that Burger King has played in rescinding the pay raise offers a spectacle of yuletide greed worthy of Charles Dickens. Burger King has justified its behavior by claiming that it has no control over the labor practices of its suppliers. “Florida growers have a right to run their businesses how they see fit,” a Burger King spokesman told The St. Petersburg Times.

Yet the company has adopted a far more activist approach when the issue is the well-being of livestock. In March, Burger King announced strict new rules on how its meatpacking suppliers should treat chickens and hogs. As for human rights abuses, Burger King has suggested that if the poor farm workers of southern Florida need more money, they should apply for jobs at its restaurants.

This holiday season, do something to help a farm worker family: don’t eat at Burger King.

4 thoughts on “Skip the Trip to Burger King

  1. Thanks for the link to Schlosser’s op-ed. I first learned of the battle for economic justice for the tomato pickers from my 81-year old mother! A few years ago, she began telling me about the Immokalee workers’ struggle and her church’s involvement in supporting the workers, including publicizing the boycotts as widely as possible.

    The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has a website with updates on the struggle. See:

  2. I well remember the first conversation I had with John Henshaw shortly after he came on board at OSHA. Schlosser had just had an excerpt published in Atlantic Monthly (or Harper’s– I forget) discussing how People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had convinced McDonald’s to use its vast purchasing leverage to pressure meatpacking firms to certify humane treatment of their animals (making sure they were really dead before slaughtering them). I sent John the article and followed up by asking him if an OSHA-McDonald’s partnership (this was before the glorious “alliance” idea was born) might be a good idea– with us suggesting that McDonald’s might buy preferentially from suppliers who could document better ergonomics programs.

    The silence was deafening (and a prelude of things to come…).

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