McDonald's Next In Tomato Fight

Graphic with tomatoes and McDonald's Corp. logo. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers' advocacy group, urged consumers across the country to pressure McDonald's to support the campaign to increase wages for Florida tomato pickers, who provide about 90 percent of the nation's domestic fresh winter tomatoes, according to growers.
A farmworkers' advocacy group says the tomatoes slapped on that Big Mac are worth just a little more than McDonald's pays for them, and it is calling on the company to pay more for the fruit to boost wages of Florida farmworkers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers on Monday urged consumers across the country to pressure McDonald's Corp. to support the wage campaign for the Florida pickers, who provide about 90 percent of the nation's domestic fresh winter tomatoes, according to growers.

The campaign comes less than a year after the mostly Mexican and Guatemalan workers reached a landmark agreement with Taco Bell's parent company, the Louisville-based YUM! Brands, which promised to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes — passing the increase along directly to workers.

"We are hoping McDonald's takes responsibility, the same way Taco Bell and YUM! Brands did, and that it uses its power to demand a just treatment and decent pay for farmworkers," said Gerardo Reyes, an Immokalee farmworker.

The Taco Bell agreement followed a four-year boycott against the chain, which also agreed in March to adopt a code of conduct that would allow the company to cut ties to suppliers who violate the rights of farmworkers.

The coalition, which represents more than 3,000 farmworkers throughout Florida, eventually hopes to convince all major fast food companies to pay more for tomatoes.

The farmworkers' group says it is targeting McDonald's now because the company has already demonstrated a commitment to improving labor conditions, in the form of a program to sell fair trade coffee in some of its New England stores. Farmers who grow fair trade coffee are paid more than the average price for their beans.

"If you have this interest in social responsibility, commit to it here in addition to overseas," said coalition organizer Julia Perkins.

McDonald's said that it recently agreed to support a new tomato industry code of conduct, created by the immigrant children's advocacy group, the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, and the industry group, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

"As a result of this action, McDonald's suppliers will buy product from growers that participate in this program," company spokeswoman Lisa Howard said in a statement.

She said the program assures accurate wages and workplace safety protections.

Perkins said the coalition had heard about the code of conduct, but had not been included in creating it and had yet to see it.

Most tomato pickers still receive roughly the same wage they did in 1978 - between 40 and 45 cents for every 32 pound-bucket of tomatoes, Perkins said.

To earn $50 a day, considered a good haul, workers must pick about 125 buckets of tomatoes, or enough tomatoes to equal the weight of a small SUV.

"We're calling on people to get in touch with McDonald's and express their support for fair wages," Perkins said.

Perkins added that the group was not calling for a boycott.

"We don't want to get to that point," Perkins said. "We have a precedent set with the agreement with Taco Bell, and we understand McDonald's can do this, because they are doing it with coffee."

Taco Bell, which estimates it will pay the Florida tomato growers an extra $100,000 a year, has said costs won't be passed on to customers.