Fighting For Fair Food At the Trader Joe’s Headquarters
On Friday, October 21st, I joined a critical rally out of the Trader Joe’s headquarters in Monrovia, CA. The rally was colorful but the message was serious: placards bearing ripe red tomatoes, a ten-foot farm worker figure garbed in orange, men and women playing melodies on ukuleles that gave the marchers a rhythm and notes for our chants: “Trader Joe’s, Shame on you, Farmworkers are people too!” The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) had organized a protest of some 400 farmworkers, community representatives, students and clergy against Trader Joe’s because the company refuses to sign an agreement regarding its purchase of tomatoes in Florida. The CIW is asking that companies pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes and that tomato pickers be assured of minimum wage and decent working conditions, including a break in the shade and water.
We began by picketing for about 40 minutes in front of a Monrovia shopping plaza where a Trader Joe’s store is located. Cars and trucks that passed us by honked to express their sympathy to our cause. We then proceeded to Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters, a mile away, so the clergy could present two letters, one signed by 100 rabbis, the other by 86 Christian ministers, asking Trader Joe’s to address the sub-poverty wages and human rights abuses in the Florida tomato industry. The demonstration was peaceful yet, at every corner, we were greeted by police cars, some unmarked. When we arrived, we were met by locked doors and a security guard who refused to let us in or to make a call on our behalf. After arguing unsuccessfully with the guard, since we had blown up both letters, we decided to paste them in the windows so that our message could be read by all corporate employees.
Trader Joe’s has apparently agreed to pay the penny more per pound, but won’t agree to the rest of the demands, including ensuring that no worker be hired as a debt slave. Those of us who believe that workers must be treated justly are surprised by Trader Joe’s refusal given that it has presented itself as an ethical company. This past September, along with a number of other rabbis and under the auspices of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, I visited tomato farms in Immokalee, Florida. I heard horrifying stories about workers’ kept on farms at gunpoint until they paid off debts resulting from exorbitant transportation and rent costs; workers harmed by pesticides; workers forced to pick more tomatoes than they were paid for. These conditions should not exist anywhere in the world, but particularly not in the United States. All of us bear responsibility if we purchase tomatoes (or chocolate, or grapes) harvested by exploited workers. We need to be vigilant, insisting that our food be grown, picked, packaged, and transported in an ethical way, with workers given decent wages and safe working conditions.
The Immokalee Workers Coalition has had success getting Burger King and Taco Bell, among others, to sign their agreement. It’s now Trader Joe’s turn to live up to its ethical reputation.