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Protests prompt Taco Bell response

Claire Heininger | Monday, April 5, 2004

A publicized hunger strike last week by freshman Antonio Rivas and a protest outside of a Taco Bell restaurant Friday received a corporate statement from Taco Bell but have yet to lead to an official response from the University.

Both the demonstration – which brought about 50 chanting and sign-waving students and scattered faculty members to the intersection of Lafayette Boulevard and LaSalle Street – and the hunger strike were carried out to coincide with the end of the National Student Week of Action, but organizers said their struggle is ongoing.

“[Rivas]’s hunger strike is over, National Student Week of Action is over, but our fight is not over,” said Melody Gonzalez, a leader in the protest.

Friday’s demonstration was the latest in a string of weekly protests titled “Fair Food Fridays” started by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in April 2001. The campaign aims to convince customers to boycott Taco Bell due to alleged unfair labor standards and wages for the migrant workers who pick tomatoes for the chain’s suppliers in Florida.

Taco Bell employees provided a corporate memo to customers, and protesters did not intrude onto company property to seek further response.

The statement, signed by Laurie Schalow of the Taco Bell Corp., details the history of Taco Bell’s dialogue with the CIW and claims that all conditions of the company’s Supplier Code of Conduct have been met, including specific anti-slave labor language and a $9 minimum wage for farm employees.

“[The CIW] think that if we simply charge our customers more money for our products, we can pay more money for the ingredients and this will somehow trickle into their paychecks,” the memo states. “That is a fallacy.”

The statement said that the free market, not Taco Bell, was responsible for determining produce prices, and said the restaurant was being unfairly targeted in a “labor dispute” between tomato suppliers and their workers.

However, Progressive Student Alliance member and protest participant Brigitte Gynther refuted the restaurant’s argument of detachment, saying that since the corporation is capable of initiating anti-slavery legislation, it can also play a role in labor disputes between tomato providers and migrant workers.

“Major buyers do have power to impose regulations,” she said. “Taco Bell only needs to charge 1/4 cent more per item to pay a penny more per pound” of tomatoes – the target figure to achieve and exceed minimum wage.

Gynther added that workers are paid by the bucket and not by the hour, a practice that allows tomato companies to underpay on “downtime” such as weeding fields and riding buses back and forth between picking sites.

“You’d have to pick a whole lot of buckets to make $9 an hour,” she said. “Anyone who picks tomatoes can tell you that’s not true.”

Despite Taco Bell’s insistence of uninvolvement, Gonzalez said that she and fellow members of the PSA planned to continue flooding the offices and Sorin Hall residence of University President Edward Malloy with copies of a letter asking the University to refuse to renew its marketing relationship with the restaurant.

The letter also expresses support for Rivas’ hunger strike and asks for Notre Dame to address several different fronts, including its standards of evaluating members of the Board of Trustees. Board member Stephanie Gallo serves as a senior marketing manager for the wine manufacturing company Gallo, which has been accused of denying health care benefits to its grape pickers.

While Gonzalez estimated that more than 30 copies as well as several e-mails had been delivered to Malloy by the weekend, University spokesman Matt Storin said the president was traveling out of town and was unaware of the letters.

Rivas said he had not yet been contacted directly by the University after keeping a liquids-only fast from dinner on March 25 to 4:30 p.m. on April 4, when he received the Eucharist at a small mass service in St. Edward’s Hall. He claimed that encouragement from peers and campus workers helped him maintain his motivation during the last few days of the strike.

“That’s what kept me going – it was unbelievable,” Rivas said. “I just want to see [the University] take more responsibility for their actions … [and] be more socially conscious.”

The University has met with PSA members repeatedly during the school year to discuss concerns about the Taco Bell marketing relationship and committed to reviewing the situation in February, but has not issued a statement since.

Members of PSA criticized the delay, saying that the administration is wasting time with discussion in place of action. Gynther said that a public statement of the evaluation was overdue.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. “Every day you don’t do something is another day farm workers are poor … [the University has] had plenty of time.”

She added that she hoped a public statement would be issued before Easter.

Gonzalez agreed, claiming Notre Dame’s Catholic priorities obligate the University to go beyond researching labor practices and terminate its contract.

“The best thing Notre Dame can do is take action,” she said. “It is a research institution but also an institution of society, and it has to respond to the injustices of society.”