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Publix draws protest over tomato-worker pay, conditions

Farmworkers and labor organizers plan to protest Thursday morning at the new Publix supermarket in Ballantyne, hoping to force higher wages and better conditions for Florida-based tomato workers.

The Publix store, Charlotte’s first, opened last week. But the dispute with the tomato field employees, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, has carried on for years, pitting Florida’s homegrown grocer against employees of one of that state’s major agricultural interests.

Publix’s official position paper on the controversy, said the company considers the issue a labor dispute between the tomato growers and their employees.

“We believe it is the responsibility of all our suppliers – including Florida farmers who grow tomatoes and other produce – to manage their own workforce, including paying wages and providing work conditions that comply with federal and state laws,” the statement said. “If farmers need to increase the price of their goods to get this done, then that is a necessary business cost we would pay – and our customers would pay – as part of making our purchases.”

The coalition of workers is promoting what’s called the Fair Food Program. Companies that participate ask their tomato suppliers to commit to labor standards such as required time clocks and more stringent safety practices, such as allowing workers to report concerns about pesticide use without fear of retribution.

The companies also commit to paying growers a “penny-per-pound” price premium, according to the coalition, which is supposed to be passed down to the workers in the field as higher wages.

Publix said it doesn’t have a problem with the penny premium but doesn’t think the program is being implemented correctly.

“We will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer, and we believe all parties would be better served if appropriate wages were paid by growers to their workers and we were charged accordingly,” said Publix.

In January, Walmart became the largest company to join the Fair Food Program. The labor group has targeted other companies with campaigns, such as a 2008 “Chipocrisy” campaign focused on Chipotle. That company joined the Fair Food Program, which now counts a dozen members.

Oscar Otzoy is a farmworker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee workers, named for an area of major tomato production in Florida. He said he plans to demonstrate on Thursday along with about 40 other workers. They’re on a 10-day tour through cities in the Southeast to pressure Publix to join the Fair Food Program.

He said the premium prices paid to suppliers participating in the program result in weekly bonuses for the workers of anywhere from $60 to $100, depending on tomato prices and each worker’s productivity.

“This economic relief is very significant for us as workers,” Otzoy said. “Before this, we had not had a pay increase at all for many years.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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