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/ February 4, 2011
Activists Rally Against Trader Joe’s Farm Worker Wages This Weekend

It’s a good thing the employees at Trader Joe’s wear Hawaiian shirts to work — they’ll be feeling the heat this weekend as fair food activists converge on the grocery chain to demand fair wages for farm workers. The NYC Community/Farmworker Alliance (CFA) is hosting a full onslaught of events and strategy sessions beginning today and culminating in a march on Sunday from the Trader Joe’s in Union Square to the Chelsea location (12-2:30 p.m).

This is the latest action in a 15-year-old campaign by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Their Campaign for Fair Food has resulted in agreements with at least nine major food purchasers, including McDonald’s, Subway, and Whole Foods. They are now turning their attention to Publix, Ahold, Kroger, and yes, even the beloved TJ’s in an effort to secure a penny more per pound of tomatoes purchased by the grocery chains, which they hope would increase wages for farm workers. The Campaign for Fair Food also seeks to establish better working conditions in the fields.CFA’s Mae Singerman told NYU Local that about 80 people are already registered for Saturday’s workshop, and that they’re expecting even more to show up at the march. Attendees include students, people of faith, and farm workers from New York, Boston, D.C. and Immokalee, Florida, among other cities.

CIW member and farm worker Romeo Ramirez traveled from Florida to NYC just for the rally. The Guatemalan native said through a translator that on a typical day he would have to pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50. He also added that corporations like Trader Joe’s are “worried about high quality products for the consumers but not about quality of life for workers.” Makes you think twice about those $4 chicken potstickers, huh?

Especially for such a popular chain, the conflict puts Trader Joe’s in an awkward spot. In August, TJ’s publicist Alison Mochizuki told Chelsea Now in an email, “At Trader Joe’s, we work with reputable suppliers that have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments.”

Those work environments may be getting better thanks to a new agreement between CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which includes a strict code of conduct. Thanks to the agreement, Ramirez said, sexual harassment in the fields is no longer acceptable. Though it was illegal before, there is now a mechanism for reporting and enforcing violations. Ramirez also said he and other CIW members are now allowed to educate workers about their rights. Plus, wages are beginning to increase because of penny per pound increases from corporations such as Yum! Brands. “But this is nothing,” he added, when you consider the entire food industry.

Singerman said she hopes the march will send the message that “all work is dignified work” and gather momentum for their ongoing fight for fair food. CIW protests are usually “lively and diverse, not depressing,” the type of place where you can see a preacher, an anarchist and an immigrant standing side by side. That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke — but clearly workers’ rights are serious business.

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