Coalition of Immokalee Workers campaign against Taco Bell (Boycott the Bell), 2001-2005

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Time Period:  
April 1,
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
The campaign began in Immokalee, Florida, but then spread across the country
Campaigners demanded that Taco Bell open a three-part dialogue between Taco Bell, the tomato suppliers, and representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for the purpose of discussing mutually-beneficial solutions to the problems faced by farmworkers in Florida. Campaigners also wanted Taco Bell to increase the price it pays per pound of tomatoes by 1 cent and wanted a Code of Conduct drafted that would define the basic wage and labor standards to be required of all Taco Bell tomato suppliers.

At the time of this campaign the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was a community-based worker organization based in Immokalee, Florida. The CIW was comprised mostly of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan immigrants that worked low-wage jobs throughout Florida. The CIW fought for fair wages for workers, increased respect from employers and bosses, better and cheaper housing, stronger laws/punishments for those companies that violate workers’ rights, the right to organize without fear of retaliation, and an end to indentured servitude in the fields.

Taco Bell, a division of Yum Brands, was a part of Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. Along with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, Taco Bell helped Tricon’s system-wide sales revenue reach nearly $22 billion in 1999. In that same year, Taco Bell alone reported over $5.2 billion in system-wide sales. Taco Bell was targeted by the CIW because of the poor wages paid to laborers who picked the tomatoes used in Taco Bell products.

According to U.S. Department of Labor data on tomato picking piece rates since 1980, from 1980 to 1995, the picking piece rate in Immokalee and South Florida remained constant at 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomato picked. At this rate, workers would need to pick two tons of tomatoes per day in order to earn only 50 dollars. Furthermore, these workers received no overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid holidays or paid vacation, and no pension. Lastly, federal law did not guarantee to these workers the right to organize. In addition to these poor working conditions, the median personal income for farm and other work sources was only $5,000-$7,500 per year (according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey 1997-1998).

On April 1, 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized the first-ever farm worker boycott of a fast-food corporation: Taco Bell. This marked the beginning of the “Hot, Long Summer” in 2001, a summer characterized by protest against Taco Bell by local organizers in Florida. As time progressed, the campaign against Taco Bell rapidly spread to become a national movement.

The CIW had multiple specific demands for Taco Bell, and refused to stop the boycott until the demands were met. Farmworkers demanded that Taco Bell open a three-part dialogue between Taco Bell, the tomato suppliers, and representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for the purpose of discussing mutually-beneficial solutions to the problems faced by farmworkers in Florida.

One solution proposed was that Taco Bell increase the price it paid per pound of tomatoes by 1 cent, which would be passed down to the pickers who generally received between 1.2 and 1.5 cents per pound. This small increase would nearly double pickers’ wages. Another potential solution proposed was that Taco Bell, the tomato industry, and worker representatives examine and draft a Code of Conduct that would define the basic wage and labor standards to be required of all Taco Bell tomato suppliers.

In order to achieve these solutions, the CIW, with support from the Student/Farmworker Alliance and multiple other groups, employed numerous tactics. The most obvious tactic was the boycott of Taco Bell products. Between 2001 and 2005, there was a widespread boycott of Taco Bell restaurants in the United States. In order to bring attention to these boycotts, campaigners would set up public displays on the streets as well as outside of local Taco Bells. Campaigners would also hold pickets and post signs and posters outside the Taco Bells.

In 2001, “Three Days of Action” was employed as a joint action between the CIW and the Student/Farmworker Alliance. During these three days, between November 29 and December 1, protests were held at multiple local Taco Bells in Gainesville, Florida. At the culmination of these three days, a celebration was held outside a Taco Bell where protesters held a carnival-like protest.

Another popular tactic employed was the writing of postcards. Campaigners would write angry letters and postcards protesting the low wages for tomato farmers and mail them to the Taco Bell headquarters. This tactic of writing letters and postcards in protest of unfair practices was even employed by Catholic Church representatives Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and Bishop Jaime Soto of Orange County. In addition, members of the CIW and even concerned civilians would write letters of protest. For example, 842 campers at Justice and Peace camps across the country sent postcards to Taco Bell in support of the protest.

In the summer of 2002, The CIW met with actor Danny Glover in Miami at a labor rights forum that brought union and community groups together. The CIW also used the popular metal concert “OzzFest” to gain support. The CIW tabled at Ozzfest after being invited by the popular metal band “System of a Down.” The boycott would later be endorsed by singer Ricky Martin as well.

A few months later, the CIW joined the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the Tampa Bay Action Group, and many other organizations from across the country for the “New Freedom Bus Tour,” which combined a typical Taco Bell protest with a march through downtown St. Petersburg.

As the protest against Taco Bell’s practices started to spread across the country, Taco Bell attempted to save face by advertising during the 2002 World Series. Taco Bell had an advertisement where a Taco Bell target floated in the cove where home-run balls hit outside of San Francisco Giants’ Stadium during the World Series. In response to this, protesters created a banner, which they strategically placed adjacent to the Taco Bell target, that said “Taco Bell Exploits Farmworkers –” This banner was shown during the broadcast to nearly 11 million viewers.

Following the World Series action against Taco Bell, CIW launched a signature campaign in Immokalee. This involved CIW members walking into labor camps, churches, and throughout the streets of Immokalee to collect signatures on a card telling Taco Bell CEO Emil Brolick that, “Our poverty is the basis of your company’s wealth, and we are saying ‘Enough is enough’!” The card also called for the three-part talks to solve the wage problems of tomato pickers. By Christmas 2002, over 2,000 cards were signed.

In addition to the actions of CIW campaigners, students across the country played a huge role in the protests against Taco Bell. In fact, between 2001 and 2005, students at twenty-five colleges and high schools nationwide removed or blocked Taco Bell restaurants. Furthermore, at least nine national student organizations officially endorsed the Taco Bell Boycott including the 180 Movement for Democracy and Education, Campus Greens, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlan (MEChA), Student Environmental Action Coalition, Student/Farmworker Alliance, Student Peace Action Network, Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations, Student Labor Action Project, and United Students Against Sweatshops.

After years of protest, Yum Brands attempted to put an end to the Taco Bell boycotts. During private conversations between Yum and the CIW, convened by the Presbyterian Church, Yum argued that it would only be willing to increase wages and improve working conditions if the CIW agreed to stop the boycott of Taco Bell, and only if the rest of the industry did the same. The CIW continued to protest and boycott Taco Bell foods, and former President Jimmy Carter publicly declared his support for the boycott movement and the CIW, arguing that Yum Brands’ solution could not be considered a serious proposal.

In March 2005, an unprecedented agreement was reached with Taco Bell. The corporation was forced to take responsibility for the conditions faced by farmworkers that pick its tomatoes. The agreement established a partnership between Yum Brands and the WIC that established social responsibility in the fast-food industry. Taco Bell agreed to pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes it bought from Florida growers, which would nearly double workers’ sub-poverty wages. Taco Bell agreed to only buy tomatoes from Florida growers that passed the penny per pound payment entirely to the farmworkers.

As a result of this complete compliance to the demands of the boycotters, the CIW called for the boycott to be ended. At this time, the boycott had grown to include the National Council of Churches, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and other organizations. These organizations were instructed to call off the boycott since all demands were met.

Research Notes
<> Accessed 30/11/2009

<> Accessed 30/11/2009

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (11/08/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Gavin Musynske, 30/11/2011