Last Friday, a group of 20 men and women, many wearing the
company’s iconic Hawaiian shirt, gathered outside the Union Square Trader Joe’s
to offer free samples. “What is it, what is it?” a bicycle-wielding pedestrian
asked. He picked up a cup and looked inside: a penny. “Would you like to sample
The Community/Farmworker Alliance (CFA) and the Coalition of
Immokalee Workers (CIW) were staging a creative protest of what they felt was
Trader Joe’s chronic underpayment of Florida tomato pickers. Placards reading
“Food with Justice” and “1-cent more” held high, they asked patrons to find a
manager and hand him the penny, the per-pound wage increase pickers are asking
“We’re fighting several supermarkets,” said Claudia Saenz, a
CIW member. Along with five others, Claudia is on a two-week East Coast protest
tour that has already stopped in Baltimore and Philadelphia and will soon hit
Providence, R.I., and Boston. ”But we’re focusing on Trader Joe’s because of
their image. It acts progressive, so we find its support of abusive farms very
“Trader Joe’s wants its tomatoes clean, organic and cheap,
and they look for contractors who have those. Unfortunately, to get cheap
tomatoes, contractors will often pay workers close to nothing,” said CFA member
Guadalupe Rodriguez. Rodriguez was the principal organizer behind the rally and
has, since last fall, been involved in over 30 protests at every Manhattan
location. Located in New York, the CFA was formed explicitly to work with the
very active Florida-based CIW.
Susan Valvez-Dupena remembered how it has gone with some of
the coalition’s past targets. “Subway was easy, so was Taco Bell. Burger King
was the ugly one. You’d hope that, with their kind of consumer base, Trader
Joe’s wouldn’t take much convincing.” So far the three she mentioned—along with
Bon Appétit, Sodex and Whole Foods—have signed an agreement promising to use
contractors who both pay more and have safe work environments.
Tomato picker Oscar Otzoy said the corporate support has
changed lives. “That why we’re calling on Trader Joe’s to join the others,
because we’ve seen what suppliers can do.”
“Grocery stores and the fast-food industry are now
consolidated, and that puts a lot of downward pressure on growers,” said Amanda
Shanor, who works with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and
Justice. “Growers aren’t able to cut for things like pesticides or farm
equipment the way they can with wages. That’s why if you want better wages you
have to start high up, with the suppliers.”
“In the past we would work 70 to 80 hours a week,” said
Otzoy, “and always below minimum wage. Now, for the first time in 30 years,
we’ve seen a wage increase and systems to report forced labor and physical abuse.”
Underregulation is behind many of the problems. Most tomato
pickers are traveling laborers, never sure of whom exactly is their boss, and
they’re all paid by the bucket, a 32-lb. container for which they get 50 cents.
This system allows exploititive farm owners to hide in anonymity. One of CIW’s
end goals is a time clock at every farm to record where pickers have worked and
for how long.
As the Union Square demonstration came to a close, the
evening’s final event began: the race for equality. Rodriguez, Valvez-Dupena
and a few others had to left to protest at the Chelsea Trader Joe’s and now, a
copy of the wage increase agreement in hand, they were about to compete over
who could present it to a Union Square manager first.
Two red lights quickly put Rodriguez out of contention.
Valvez-Dupena, taking a winding, traffic-adaptive route, managed to sprint the
whole way and handily won. Winded, she approached a manger. He excused himself
and said his store needed tending.
A lack of dialogue has been endemic. Local management has
directed the press and protesters to the company’s central PR department, and
both the CIW and Trader Joe’s have called each other disingenuous. Trader Joe’s
says that, after taxes and damages, the $.01 wage increase is actually a $.015
increase, a point which the CIW concedes is true. And the CIW has accused the
Trader Joe’s PR department of sophistry.
“They keep saying they don’t currently have Florida
tomatoes,” said Bridgette Gynther. “That’s only because they’re not in season.
They would if they were. No one has Florida tomatoes right now. They only grow
October through May.”
This has forced activists to focus on winning over
customers, a conversation which has proven difficult. Inside, shoppers scoured
the tomatoes looking for the firmest, unaware or indifferent to the battle
outside. The few converts seemed interested in activism for its own sake, like
self-styled “professional revolutionary” Tibby Brooks.
“I’m just looking for a manger right now,” she said, holding a folded
CIW contract. Finding no one, she opened it. “I guess I should read what I’m
about to ask him to sign.”