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Tomato Troubles
Things are heating up between Burger King and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Burger King could stop sourcing tomatoes from southwest Florida if its dispute with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworkers' rights group in the region, doesn’t cool down. The Associated Press last month obtained a letter to suppliers written in December by Steven Grover, Burger King's vice president of global food safety, quality assurance, and regulatory compliance. In it, he asked suppliers to create contingency plans for sourcing tomatoes from outside the Immokalee region “in an effort to protect the BKC brand and supply system from disruption.”

We are working diligently to find a legal way to comply with this scheme.”

Now, Grover confirms, the chain's suppliers are ready to divert the supply chain for the 2008–2009 growing season if the situation calls for such a measure.

“They already have a plan,” he says.

Burger King is the latest quick-service chain to come under fire from the CIW for not agreeing to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes sourced from the region, where the group says pickers typically earn about 40–45 cents per 32-pound bucket they pick—a wage they allege hasn't gone up since the late 1970s.

The CIW reached an agreement with Yum! Brands in 2005, following a four-year boycott of Taco Bell by the group and its sympathizers, and McDonald's signed on this past April. Implementation of the agreements, however, has been put on hold due to threats by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to issue $100,000 fines to any of its members that comply.

Grover says Burger King, which buys about 1 percent of the tomatoes grown in the Immokalee region, has not agreed to the CIW's terms because of legal concerns, including possible violation of anti-trust laws and tax implications.

“We are working diligently to find a legal way to comply with this scheme,” he says. “We just can't find a legal way to do it.”

The fact that the Yum! and McDonald's agreements are currently on hold is another deterrent, he says.

“We don’t just simply want to agree and walk away without doing anything,” Grover says. “We want a plan to get the job done.”

Grover also cites concerns about third-party oversight for the agreements, and a February 2007 press release from the chain explained that Burger King buys its tomatoes from repacking companies—not the growers, who have a direct relationship with the workers.

Responding to the notion that Burger King could stop sourcing tomatoes from southwest Florida, CIW staff person Julia Perkins stresses that farm workers across the country and world face the same problems as those in the Immokalee region, but says many don't have a human rights organization, such as the CIW, to stand up for their interests.

“Running away from the scene of the crime, does that make you any more innocent?” she asks. “Are they really willing to pay an exorbitantly higher transportation cost to bring in tomatoes from overseas or Mexico and pass that on to their customers rather than pay a penny more per pound?”

Perkins also dismisses Burger King's concerns about the legality of the agreement and says the third-party oversight the chain is asking for was already in place with Yum! Brands.

“This agreement [with Burger King] would be traceable and transparent, as well,” she says. “All the issues they bring up are things that we've been willing to bring up in talks. These are the kinds of issues that we need to be able to negotiate.”

Perkins says though Burger King is only responsible for purchasing a small amount of the region's tomatoes, the company's participation in the penny-a-pound agreement would strengthen the precedent Yum! Brands and McDonald's have set for the industry and put pressure on growers to allow for implementation of the terms.

“We know it's going to take a while to move it forward,” she says. “So we're asking [Burger King] to be part of the solution.”

In the meantime, Perkins says she anticipates consumers will pressure Burger King to agree to work with the CIW.

“There are consumers all over the country who are really concerned over what Burger King has done, and they want Burger King to do the right thing,” she says.

Students, a main source of support for the CIW, are expected to stage a series of protests in the coming months, Perkins says.

“I can imagine there will only be more and more pressure on Burger King until they come around,” she says.

But Bill Adams, CEO of labor relations consulting firm Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan, says that unless Burger King feels the effects at the cash register, it is unlikely that any of the CIW's efforts will have a big impact.

“Civil disobedience is going to have very little effect,” he says. “They're kind of like panty raids: It's just not a big deal.”

Are they really willing to pay an exorbitantly higher transportation cost to bring in tomatoes from overseas or Mexico and pass that on to their customers rather than pay a penny more per pound?”

On the other hand, labor expert Paul Ortiz, a professor in the University of California Santa Cruz Department of Community Studies, says Burger King might be underestimating the CIW's influence, citing their receipt of the 2007 Anti-Slavery Award by human rights group Anti-Slavery International.

“They've developed a finely calibrated campaign that generally seems to be quite successful,” he says. “I'm not quite sure [Burger King] understands the underlying level of support that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has.”

Grover says Burger King has donated $25,000 to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a charity that provides assistance to migrant farm workers in Florida, and made previous attempts to deal with the CIW, including expressing to the group's representatives the chain's interest in recruiting interested Immokalee workers into the Burger King system.

Perkins says the latter offer is just avoiding the issue at hand.

“One wants to ask, then, where would the tomatoes come from?” she says.

But Burger King insists it is still trying to remedy the situation.

“Our door has been open with the CIW since the very beginning,” Grover says. “We've never refused a meeting. If they wanted to sit down tomorrow, we're ready to go.”

To which Perkins responds: “He knows how to get in touch with us.”