In his book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” journalist Thomas Friedman addresses the issues of globalization and analyzes changing dynamics between the haves and the have-nots.
One point he makes is this: Activist groups play an increasingly important role in the global economic system.
Companies want to lower prices to consumers and raise profits with cheaper labor. With the freer flow of information, activists provide the economic system’s balance. Bringing Apple’s or Nike’s questionable Far East labor practices to light spurs a reaction from the public. Companies respond; labor conditions improve. It’s the way a healthy economic system works.
We were reminded of that recently when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers conducted a march through parts of Florida. The community-based activist group tries to pressure tomato growers, supermarkets and retail food outlets into improving the pay and working conditions of tomato pickers in Florida. They don’t have a lot of money or power. They rely on publicity to influence public opinion, which, in turn, can influence business practices for the better.
Under the “Fair Food” program, the coalition hopes growers will agree to such things as independent monitoring, investigation and dispute remediation. They want stronger safety measures, worker education and a uniform code of conduct. The centerpiece of their campaign is the “penny-a-pound” price premium paid to field workers.
It’s a good premise and one that coalition members and tomato pickers say can make an enormous difference. According to the coalition, the 1-cent increase means field workers would earn 80 cents instead of 50 cents per 32-pound bucket. That means a significant improvement in farm workers’ standard of living. And who of the “haves” would argue with spending another penny for a bag of tomatoes? Who would even notice?
The CIW has had enormous success in recent years. Nearly all the members of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange have signed on to the Fair Food Program. So have McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut), Subway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Chiplote Mexican Grill.
The coalition now hopes to get Publix supermarkets onboard. Last year, the Lakeland-based company enjoyed more than a 40 percent share of Florida supermarket business; it sells a lot of tomatoes.
Publix has been reluctant. A company spokeswoman said the stores sold more than 40,000 products from thousands of suppliers. “This is just not feasible for us,” she said.
To change this, a groundswell must come from consumers. Publix is an outstanding Florida company, a model of customer-based service. It is highly regarded for its willingness to listen and provide what shoppers want.
Do consumers want “Fair Food” tomatoes? Are they willing to pay a 1-cent-a-pound more if they feel it’s the ethical thing to do? We think they will.
Will they reward the supermarket chain by their loyalty if they believe the company is willing to go the extra mile to make life a little better for the have-nots who work hard and have little to show for it? We think they should.
It you care, let them know. When consumers demand change, they should get it. That’s the way the system is supposed to work.