Naples Daily News
group taking anti-Taco Bell message to Idaho
By JANINE A. ZEITLIN, firstname.lastname@example.org
October 16, 2004
An Immokalee farmworker group is trekking Northwest to sow its anti-Taco Bell message and to protest at an arena at Idaho's largest university bearing the fast-food giant's name.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is leading a boycott against the Mexican food chain, demanding its parent company, Yum! Brands Inc., use its corporate sway to improve wages and conditions for Florida farmworkers.
The Louisville, Ky.-based company also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food Restaurants.
Taco Bell officials say the group's attacks are misguided. They say Taco Bell bought only 110,000 pounds of Florida tomatoes last year and offered to sign on to an industrywide 1-cent surcharge on Florida tomatoes.
The coalition is pushing Taco Bell to pay workers a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they pick.
Starting in Seattle on Friday, about a dozen students, workers and coalition staff planned to visit churches, rallies and colleges to gain allies in the Pacific Northwest and end Oct. 25 with a protest at the newly minted Taco Bell Pavilion.
In the past three years of the boycott, the two sides have haggled, negotiated and are no longer in talks. But the boycott is gaining steam at universities across the country.
University of Notre Dame decision-makers spiked a $75,000 contract proposed by a Taco Bell franchisee to sponsor athletic events such as post-game radio shows this summer, officials said, after students pelted administrators with concerns for farmworker wages.
Matt Storin, a Notre Dame spokesman, said the university shuttled the concerns to Taco Bell and killed the contract because "they wouldn't give us a satisfactory answer in regard to payment of the workers."
A Taco Bell spokeswoman said she wasn't aware of the Notre Dame flare-up.
Melody Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Notre Dame student, was active in the student onslaught after visiting Immokalee during an alternative spring break. She'll tour with the coalition through the Northwest.
"They acknowledged the student pressure was definitely something that encouraged that decision," Gonzalez said. "I think it sends out a pretty strong message."
Sally George, a Taco Bell spokeswoman, said the company is trying to work with the coalition and has offered to help to change the laws to improve labor conditions for farmworkers. She pointed to its updated code of conduct for tomato suppliers that specifically bars slavery and forced labor.
"We have a zero tolerance for violation of any points," she said.
Students returning this fall to Boise State University in Idaho discovered a sports pavilion renamed the Taco Bell Arena. The university with more than 18,400 students forged a 15-year, $4 million contract in June with a local Taco Bell franchise owner who has supported Boise State athletics five years, said Frank Zang, Boise State communications director.
"Our agreement is with a local company that does not buy its tomatoes from Florida. There are no corporate dollars involved," Zang said.
Through a spokesman, Bob Kustra, the university's president, said the naming of the arena isn't a political statement. "It is, however, a statement that the university is serious about finding new and innovative methods of funding our programs during tight taxpayer budget times."
Yet student leaders with the goal of getting the name changed don't buy the argument.
"Taco Bell is on TV and they put on ads and that causes someone to come to your establishment. Now that it's not to your benefit, you want to dissociate from the parent company. You're either not Taco Bell or you're Taco Bell. You can't have it both ways," said Ramiro Castro, a 26-year-old Boise State student senator.
Castro estimated about 100 students and professors are active in raising concerns.
Now both sides seem to be waiting for the other to make the first move.
"We're interested in going back to confidential negotiations," said Julia Perkins, a Coalition of Immokalee Workers staff member.
George, the Taco Bell spokeswoman, said, "Right now we're waiting for a proposal from them on the next steps."