On the heels of a 500-strong march on Publix's Lakeland headquarters Sunday, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers plans an even bigger protest this spring.
That protest would be to persuade the supermarket giant to improve conditions for farmworkers, pay more for the tomatoes they pick and stop buying from farms on which slaves have worked.
The peaceful demonstration drew workers and supporters from around the state as well as clergy of many faiths. One of those was retired United Church of Christ minister Jim Boler of Fort Myers. "I was especially moved by what the high school students from Immokalee had to say," Boler said. "One girl talked about what it's like to live in a farmworker family, seeing Publix ads celebrating Thanksgiving but knowing that for her family, if there's not work that week, they can't afford food."
With pledges from the world's biggest fast-food companies, Whole Foods and others to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes and raise labor standards, the coalition is asking Publix to do the same. So far, three Florida growers have stepped forward to supply tomatoes to corporations under the higher standards.
Publix is not one of them.
Refusing to meet with members, it isreleased a statement: "Publix has a practice of not intervening in labor disputes between suppliers and their employees," said spokeswoman Shannon Patten.
That disheartens Boler, but doesn't discourage him. "This was not the end of the journey, I'm afraid," he said "It looks like Publix has dug in."
So has the coalition.
What frustrates members like Greg Asbed is Publix's insistence that this is a labor squabble, coupled with its unwillingness to stop selling tomatoes from two Florida farms where captives were taken to work by a slavery ring. In that case, four Immokalee family members were sentenced last December in federal court for enslaving and brutalizing nine migrant workers.
Asbed's message to Publix? "You don't want to be held accountable, but we will hold you accountable," he says. "We'll just keep coming back. We're not going to get tired."