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Celebrating Taco Bell boycott victory

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Two weeks ago, I received a call I never imagined would come. A friend and colleague phoned me to say the Taco Bell Boycott – a four-year campaign within an 11-year struggle – had ended in victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

About 11 years ago, migrant farmworkers – Americans, Mexicans, Haitians and other nationalities – started to organize around their joint suffering in the Florida tomato fields. Paid starvation wages of 40 to 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of produce, denied the right to organize, unable to have pensions, overtime, health insurance and other labor benefits, and even (in at least five known cases) held against their liberty and forced to work like slaves; farmworkers saw themselves imprisoned in a cycle of oppression and poverty and were ready to fight back. By crossing ethnic and language barriers, they organized the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Four years ago, after discovering the bulk of their tomato labor going to thriving Taco Bell restaurants, the workers decided to launch a consumer boycott of the company and sought allies.

My story in this began when, as a first year student, I attended a Progressive Student Alliance meetings and learned about the boycott. Never having eaten at a Taco Bell before – combining Mexican cuisine and fast food never seemed right – I figured I should participate in the organizing component. By sophomore year, I found myself planning our weekly protests – Fair Food Fridays at the LaSalle Taco Bell, going to meetings with administration lawyers about the boycott and our contract with the company and talking with Student Farmworker Alliance members from Florida to California.

While I have never been to Immokalee and seen the conditions, nor do I have personal ties to migrant farmworkers, I was drawn to the movement. Seeing people standing up for themselves, asserting their right to receive a livable wage inspired me to work in solidarity with them. Additionally, it angered me that growers abused these vital workers through forced labor to no other end but higher profits. I did not want to live complicity in a country that allows such exploitation.

About a year ago, the local campaign to get Notre Dame to take a stance for justice with the Immokalee farmworkers seemed bleak. Our meetings with administrators were not going anywhere.

Then, unexpectedly during PSA’s Student Week of Action, a friend and comrade, Tony Rivas, decided to go on a seven day hunger strike to call attention to the ways our University was out of step with Catholic Social Teaching principles, especially in terms of the Taco Bell contract and campus labor policies. His stand for justice and self-sacrifice ignited a fire under our student-organizing project.

Our core of students began arranging a larger contingent of 147 student justice fasters, wrote letters to newspapers, organized protests and a sit in at the administration building. As one of the lead organizers, I saw courage and resolve in others around me that we only dream of experiencing. We never had time to say it, but we all felt we were making history. Winning our Notre Dame campaign was an added bonus to an already great accomplishment.

Now that the boycott nationally has ended with YUM! Foods/ Taco Bell agreeing to pay the coveted “one more penny per pound” and to work with the CIW to enforce labor codes of conduct and make industry wide changes, I feel we must all pause to not only celebrate this enormous victory, but also view this event in a context of a larger and longer fight for justice denied by people forgotten.

Other companies must follow Taco Bell’s example to enforce labor and wages codes for workers in their supply chain. Labor makes our lives possible from the food we eat, to the buildings we live in, to the stores and restaurants we frequent. However, labor is not a commodity – labor is people – living, loving, working and deserving recognition. Whether in the Florida fields or Notre Dame’s Campus, workers ought to have a living wage and a means to organize for changes in working conditions.

This feat is a step along the way for me. Robert F. Kennedy once spoke of victories like these: “Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

No one could have seen a group of workers, students, religious and community folk joining together to bring a major corporation to act justly. I know I have been changed and as the struggle for worker justice continues, I would take up its mantel any day with the hope from this victory in my pocket.

Kamaria Porter is a junior history major. Her column appears every other Wednesday. She can be contacted at kporter@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.