At Florida Tomato Protests, Backlash


Coalition of Immokalee Workers

After more that 15 years of petitions, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and lobbying efforts, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)--a group trying to alleviate the abysmal labor conditions in Florida's tomato fields (including slavery)--take adversity as a given in their battle to secure living wages from the giant corporations that control the state's produce industry. Florida grows the vast majority of winter tomatoes consumed in this country, so it's a fight in which everyone who eats a fresh tomato during the cold months has a stake.

But a recent series of events has left the coalition feeling baffled, queasy, and angry.

For the past several weeks the CIW has been holding demonstrations at stores operated by Publix Super Markets, Inc., a Florida-based company that operates more than 1,000 markets in five Southeastern states. Publix has been unresponsive to years of requests that it join the coalition's Campaign for Fair Food, a program that mandates steps to prevent human trafficking and gives field hands a one-penny-per-pound raise (hardly a princely sum to a $24-billion a year corporation like Publix, but enough to add $20 to a picker's $50 daily take, the difference between abject poverty and a living wage).

Could there be an undercover spy at work who had an obsession with very young children?

At an evening vigil in front of the courthouse in Ft. Myers, where a year earlier several members of a Southwestern Florida family were convicted of enslaving 12 immigrant tomato workers, CIW member Greg Asbed felt a presence behind him as he snugged a blanket around his son, who was nodding off to sleep in a stroller. Asbed wheeled around and came face-to-face with a stranger pointing a video camera over his shoulder directly at the child's face. The cameraman did not identify himself.

A day later, while walking a picket line in front of a Publix in Sarasota, Lucas Benitez, another CIW member, noticed that a cameraman focused on his one-year-old baby each time that Lucas passed him. "I thought it was kind of weird because he didn't identify himself or say anything," said Benitez in a telephone interview. "I was worried."

During a Port Charlotte demonstration, Jordan Buckley, also of the CIW, wondered why store officials were allowing one particular photographer unfettered access, while preventing others from filming at all on company property.

"Why are they letting you shoot," Buckley asked. "What's your name? Do you work for Publix?"

"No," the photographer said, giving the name Thomas McGuigan. "I'm just an old hippie doing a documentary about the modern protest movement." When Buckley got home, he did a quick Google search and found that a person named Thomas McGuigan was employed at Publix video division.

Could there be an undercover spy at work who had an obsession with very young children?

"I wonder how Publix PR people would feel if they were in the same position--if there was a stranger who was found later to be falsely identifying himself filming their children?" said Benitez, when I spoke to him.

"The bottom line for me is, spy on me, well, shame on you, that's wrong. But spy on my kid, what need does Publix have for that?" said Asbed.

Both questions struck me as a worthwhile, so I made a call to Maria Brous, Director of Media and Community Relations at Publix's Lakeland headquarters. She confirmed that McGuigan was indeed an employee of Publix, but said that he also owned a separate video production operation and was filming the CIW actions as a personal project. "We did not assign him, but we were aware that he was there. We like to document activities at our stores. It is typical for us to video-record events at our stores--positive ones, too--so we asked Tom to give us a copy we could keep ourselves."

Brous said that the store did not intend to destroy or give the footage of children back to the parents. "I think it's unfair to claim that we did anything inappropriate. The children were there as part of the event," she said.

As to the CIW's bigger question: Why won't Publix, whose stores are as ubitquitous as palm trees in the Sunshine State, join a campaign for fair food that is supported by the state's governor, Charlie Crist, fast-food outlets such as McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, and Taco Bell, as well as Wholefoods Market, Compass Group (a huge nation-wide food service corporation), and East Coast Growers and Packers, a major Florida tomato producer and packer?

"We have a long-standing policy of not intervening in labor disputes," said Brous.

That reasoning does not wash with the CIW. "We are not asking them to get involved in anyone's dispute," said Asbed. "What we're saying is that there are now big tomato growers out there that are doing the right thing. We are saying buy from them and support them. It's not a dispute. It's an option."

The events of the past few weeks are reminiscent of some corporate shenanigans directed toward the CIW a year and a half ago when the organization was putting pressure on Burger King, another Florida-based firm. An Internet writer who went by the screen name surfxaholic36 accused the worker's group's leaders of pocketing donations. But Amy Bennett Williams, a reporter with the Ft. Myers News Press who should get a Pulitzer for her dogged work on labor abuses in Florida's tomato fields, discovered that the Web alias was used by one Shannon Grover, who just happened to be the middle-school-aged daughter of Stephen Grover, a Burger King Vice President. When Williams reached Shannon Grover, the girl denied authoring the posts, saying, "that was my dad."

Burger King eventually joined the Campaign for Fair Food. Stephen Grover is no longer with the company.

For its part, Publix does seem to have learned one lesson from the current filming furor. Last weekend when the CIW picketed a store in Clearwater, they were once again met by film crews. Asbed said they were more assertive than ever. Only this time the cameramen all wore white buttons bearing the inscription, "I (heart) Publix."