Remembering the ‘Boot the Bell’ protests of 2004
Before the semester comes to a close, we have one more story that deserves to go down among the Notre Dame legends: that of the Notre Dame students whose campus activism amplified a farmworkers’ labor rights movement, becoming a part of one of the most successful social impact movements in recent memory.
We all know that jokes abound about Center for Social Concerns seminars’ capacity to change students’ lives. While these jokes poke fun at the sentiment that often comes along with participation in one of these courses and their corresponding week-long immersions, it’s not a stretch to say that seminars are some of the most formative experiences that Notre Dame students will have in undergrad. At their best, seminars motivate students to become active citizens who are deeply invested in the issues they care about — whether those were discovered on the seminar and sparked by the community partners working to address them, or perhaps issues that exist closer to home.
The story of the Notre Dame “Boot the Bell” student advocacy campaign and hunger strike of 2004 is not only one of the most impressive David-and-Goliath stories in our campus memory (sorry, Rudy), but it’s also an important reminder of how a spring break seminar sparked a desire to organize and act.
Unrest over Taco Bell’s relationships with various universities emerged in the fall of 2002 due to the organizing and advocacy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or the CIW. The CIW was (and continues to be) a worker-based human rights organization that has fought for a variety of workers’ rights issues that began with farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida. The CIW identified the tomato growers who supplied tomatoes to Taco Bell restaurants — who underpaid and exploited their workers — as a group that could be leveraged to publicize the fight for workers’ rights. Beginning with Middle Tennessee State University in the fall of 2002, students began to protest the presence of Taco Bell on their campuses after hearing about the advocacy of the CIW and realizing that many of their campuses had stakes in the matter. Notre Dame followed suit in the spring of 2004.
Melody Gonzalez, class of 2005, and Tony Rivas, class of 2007, met through mutual friends and participated in the Migrant Experiences CSC seminar together in the spring of 2004. Returning to campus, they were moved by the discrepancy they saw between the University’s supposed commitment to justice and their contract with Taco Bell, which was gaining a reputation through the CIW’s advocacy. This issue hit close to home for both Gonzalez and Rivas — both of their fathers had worked as migrant farmworkers after moving from Mexico to the U.S. as teenagers. These students didn’t need the seminar to inspire them about issues they already cared about, but it likely helped connect them to the movers and shakers in Immokalee, Florida and to sympathetic students and staff on campus.
Gonzalez and Rivas were both members of the Progressive Student Alliance, or the PSA, whose members had been in conversation with administrators when they heard that the Notre Dame Athletic Department had made a marketing contract with Taco Bell the previous fall (this was prior to the existence of the Taco Bell in LaFortune Student Center). After much conversation and a lack of action on the part of the administration, the students decided that direct action was necessary.
Action began with a highly publicized, week-long hunger strike by Rivas alone that culminated in a demonstration outside of the Taco Bell at Lafayette and Lasalle on April 2, 2004, in which 50 students and faculty members showed up to support the movement.
Forty-four students joined in on a three-day hunger strike on April 13, 2004. On the 15th, about 30 members of the Progressive Student Alliance visited then-University President Fr. Edward Malloy’s office to deliver several copies of a letter — similar to ones that had been delivered over the previous two weeks — asking the administration to issue a statement against renewing its contract with Taco Bell. Malloy did not invite the students to listen to their demands, but a few students did have a meeting with Fr. Peter Jarrett, the counselor to the University President at the time.
Meanwhile, more students joined in on the protests. The week of April 19 held reports that 126 students had pledged to fast in one- to three-day increments. By this point, the students had captured the attention of some powerful allies — the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Oxfam and Bishop Nevins of Florida all wrote to the University administration asking them to meet the students’ demands, but to no avail in getting through to either the administration or to Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands.
Change would not come until the next semester. On August 26, 2004, the Observer reported that the University had cancelled its contract with Taco Bell at long last. In contrast to the cold shoulder the students had received previously from the higher-ups, University spokesman Matt Storin stated the students deserved “a lot of credit for bringing up these issues, doing the research and carrying on the discussion in a very responsible and studied way.”
It was not until the spring of 2005 that Taco Bell finally gave in to the pressure from the CIW. Yum! Brands agreed to meet the demands of the CIW to nearly double the wages of their farmworkers, ending years of protest. This triumph of a workers’ organization over the power of a major corporation was a historic victory for workers’ rights.
Upon the end of the nationwide boycott, Gonzalez, one of the leaders of the movement, wrote a letter to the editor explaining the agreement and thanking the campus community for their support of the protest. Though the present battle with Taco Bell had ended, she emphasized that the work was ongoing, and that the fight for workers’ rights continued not only in the fight to improve conditions for the Immokalee workers but also in the fights emerging in other places and with other corporations as well.
Melody was right. This victory was not the end of the Fair Food movement — it was just getting started. Yum! Brands was the first of many multi-million dollar franchises to sign on to the CIW’s Fair Food Program, a partnership between signed-on buyers and certified growers who agree to abide by certain labor standards, which today is hailed as “the best workplace monitoring program in the U.S.” and an essential “international benchmark in the fight against modern slavery.” Between 2005 and 2015, 13 other franchises followed Yum! Brands’ decision, including McDonald’s (2007), Subway (2008), Sodexo (2010), Trader Joe’s (2012), Chipotle (2012) and Walmart (2014).
One of the most prominent holdouts remaining is Wendy’s, whose refusal to participate in the Fair Food Program is the motivation behind the publicized Wendy’s boycott (their icon may look familiar). CIW’s Boot the Braids movement is active on campuses across the nation and has organized a massive annual march in Manhattan to pressure the fast-food giant to join the ranks of other corporations to protect workers’ rights. So, 15 years later, the CIW’s fight continues — and Melody Gonzalez, who went on to work for the Fair Food Program full time, is still fighting with them. You can even listen to a conversation with Gonzalez recorded last year on the CSC’s Signs of the Times podcast.
You might joke about Appalachia changing you, but seminars provide the opportunity to invest more deeply in the issues you care about and connect your learning to issues of justice you see in your community. And, in the spirit of active citizenship, we hope you’ll find yourself continuing to learn about and fight for the things you care about into the next stage of your life and beyond, recognizing that we all have a part to play in the work for justice.
Annie Moran is a senior hailing from Chicago studying psychology and education. She can be reached at [email protected] or @anniemoranie on Twitter. She’d love to hear your musings on the wonders of fresh basil, experimental theater or the sacred space of public transportation.
Katie Hieatt is a senior majoring in Economics and American Studies from Memphis, Tennessee. Her go-to streaming recommendations are Russian Doll and Killing Eve. She can be reached at [email protected] or @katie_hieatt on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.