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Crossing the U.S. to Protest at Taco Bell

Florida tomato pickers traveled 11 days to urge Irvine fast-food giant to end grower exploitation.

March 06, 2004|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

It took Berdrigo Beltran 11 days to travel from Florida to Irvine, on a roundabout journey by bus and on foot, to deliver a straightforward message to Taco Bell executives: End the exploitation of him and other tomato pickers.

The bus trip he and nearly 100 fellow farm workers took from Immokalee, Fla., was to protest Irvine-based Taco Bell's business ties with his employer and other tomato growers, whom labor activists accuse of exploiting workers.

"We want some dignity," said Beltran, 18, who earns about $7,500 a year and sends most of it back to his family in Mexico. "We want some justice and some dignity. We're being stepped on." Organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and supported by the AFL-CIO and other organizations, the laborers -- mostly recent immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti -- want the fast-food giant to pressure tomato growers to offer better working conditions and pay them an extra penny for each pound they harvest.

They arrived in Los Angeles this week, after rallies in Chicago and San Francisco, and spent two days walking from East Los Angeles to the fast-food restaurant chain's headquarters in Orange County. Several hundred protesters joined the marching workers Friday in front of the 12-story glass building with picket signs and chants.

For Beltran, it was a break from the monotonous rhythm of picking tomatoes day after day.

Beltran also got some time away from the mobile home he shares with six other workers, the predawn wake-up calls and the pesticides that irritate his sunburned skin.

Officials at Taco Bell, which buys 45 million pounds of tomatoes every year from Florida and other locations, said workers overestimate the company's influence on their suppliers.

"We can't force anyone to meet with this group," said Laurie Schalow, a company spokeswoman. "They think that we have a lot of power and influence, but at the end of the day, we are not the largest buyer of tomatoes."

This is the third year the Florida labor group has staged protests in front of the fast-food giant's headquarters. Last year, workers went on a 10-day hunger strike there.

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