A Youth Boycott Tries to Ring Bells

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There are several reasons to urge teenagers to avoid fast food chains like Taco Bell, but is one of those reasons … the tomatoes?

The Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) thinks so. The Florida-based group has gained some support among high school and college students around the country for its campaign to boycott Taco Bell over the plight of migrant workers who pick its tomatoes.

Consumer boycotts are a rare form of youth organizing, and this campaign shows why the method is both attractive and extremely difficult to pull off.

Although the “Boot the Bell” campaign has inspired youth in several communities, it’s tough to tell how their efforts have affected any of Taco Bell’s 6,600 outlets in the United States. That might be a good thing for at least one giant in the youth work field:

the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (B&GCA), whose TEENSupreme leadership training and career guidance program is heavily supported by the Taco Bell Foundation. Many Taco Bells put out canisters for customers to contribute to the program.

The boycott idea would seem to have potential. Studies on civic engagement describe today’s youth as more likely to express their social activism though consumer choices than through traditional political involvement or voting.

And teens are a critical population for Taco Bell, as both customers and workers. “Teenagers are one of their core groups,” says Romero Brown, director of teen services at B&GCA, based in Atlanta.

Consumer boycotts often appeal to college activists, says Melody Baker, program coordinator at the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, based in New York City. “High school age groups usually work on issues in their own community, while college students come together from many communities. It a difference between community organizing and campus activism.”

The farm worker alliance seems to be combining the two strategies.

The Cause

The fundamental issue is this: Labor organizers in the farming region around Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”), in south Florida near Naples, say that some Latin American farm workers in local fields and orchards are trapped in conditions akin to slavery.

What the workers make picking tomatoes or citrus fruit, they say, often does not cover the food, shelter and transportation expenses that are charged to the workers’ tab.

Exposés on the farm workers’ plight, including descriptions of federal prosecutions of labor contractors on charges of promoting slavery, have appeared this year in The New Yorker, National Geographic and elsewhere.

Tomatoes from Immokalee are sold across the eastern United States, including to fast-food chains such as Taco Bell.

The company says it buys tomatoes through brokers, not growers, and the labor dispute is between pickers and growers, not with Taco Bell. Taco Bell is part of Yum! Brands, the nation’s third-largest fast-food conglomerate, which includes Pizza Hut, A&W Root Beer, Long John Silver’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The primary farm worker organization in the dispute is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Brian Payne, an SFA national coordinator, says the farm workers chose to boycott Taco Bell in hopes of emulating the success of other consumer campaigns that focused on products with youth appeal. Nike is a prime example: Consumer protests in the late 1990s forced Nike to adopt a code of operations directed at better working conditions in overseas shoe plants.

The SFA wants Taco Bell to lead the way in paying an additional penny per pound for tomatoes, which CIW calculates could almost double tomato pickers’ wages. Taco Bell says it has no contract that sets a price for tomatoes.

The question is: Is this enough of an issue to get youth riled up in significant numbers?

The Campaign

The SFA started in 2001 and has few formal chapters, but says it works with activist groups at dozens of high schools and 300 colleges.

In March, hundreds of college and high school supporters joined farm workers from Immokalee on a 17-day tour that produced protests at Taco Bells in 20 cities. An estimated 1,000 supporters carrying placards and puppets protested outside Taco Bell’s Irvine, Calif., headquarters, where some farm workers also participated in a 10-day hunger strike.

Bill Vandenberg, co-director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, credits the tour stop in Denver with “a surge of activism” in which coalition members and students from West High School started “Former Taco Bell Customers of Colorado” and signed up 200 people.

The SFA has also spread its message through an Alternative Spring Break program that brings small groups of youth to south Florida to experience working in the fields.

On websites and in handouts, boycott organizers claim that “16 universities and high schools have either booted the Taco Bell from their campus or blocked them from coming to their campus.” Organizers list six campuses where existing Taco Bells outlets closed. Three examples:

• The University of San Francisco closed an outlet in 2002, issuing a statement that “a campus movement to break the university’s ties with Taco resulted in the removal of the chain.”

• After 60 students, many dressed as tomatoes, marched on administration offices on Halloween 2002, the University of Chicago decided not to renew a contract with Taco Bell.

• Middle Tennessee University also did not renew an expiring contract after protests, but school officials noted that sales at the outlet were low.

“We’ve closed restaurants on campuses, but more for business reasons,” says Laurie Schalow, Taco Bell’s director of public relations.

Organizers have not tied their protest to Taco Bell’s support of TEENSupreme, which has totaled $12.6 million since 1995, including $1.6 million last year. B&GCA says the program serves 70,000 youth at more than 70 TEENSupreme centers.

In fact, Brown, the director of teen services at B&GCA, said he was unaware of the Taco Bell boycott until called about it by Youth Today.

Even at the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County, Fla. – which includes Immokalee – Director Mary Boyce-Johnson said, “I haven’t heard about” the boycott. The club, based in East Naples, has a TEENSupreme Keystone Club that serves about 30 teens.

TEENSupreme is the Taco Bell Foundation’s only charity. Funds are raised from the canisters in Taco Bell outlets, from employee and supplier donations and through a donation from Taco Bell itself.

Hillary Niblo, executive director of the foundation, called the protest “a situation Taco Bell public affairs deals with every day, but it has no impact on us – not at all, not one iota.”

Contact: Student Farmworker Alliance, www.sfalliance.org; Taco Bell Foundation (949) 863-2152, tacobellfoundation@tacobell.com; TEENSupreme, www.teensupreme.org.