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Coalition of Immokalee Workers bicyclists stop on way to Lakeland for south Fort Myers rally

Aug. 27, 2011

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- Shannon Patten, Publix spokeswoman

"Like any retailer, we don't set the price for tomatoes, and we don't negotiate."


Dripping with sweat, six bicyclists arrived at the corner of Daniels Parkway and Fiddlesticks Boulevard in south Fort Myers this morning, having pedaled from Immokalee.

By Sept. 6, they will have ridden 200 miles to the headquarters of Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, where they hope to talk to the corporation's CEO, Ed Crenshaw, about raising the wages of Immokalee's tomato pickers.

"We've been asking Publix to do the right thing, to better the conditions of farm workers who harvest tomatoes," said Leonel Perez, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. "Publix still refuses.

"We are asking for 1 cent a pound more and better conditions, respect in the workplace, a voice for complaints without the fear of being fired."

The News-Press named the coalition the 2010 People of the Year for their pioneering labor- and human-rights achievements.

About 40 protesters were at Daniels and Fiddlesticks when the cyclists arrived.

They carried signs that read, "Honk for a living wage," "Nuestro sudor no es gratis" (Our sweat is not free), "Publix do the right thing," and "Pobreza" (Poverty).

Fort Myers resident Kate Brown held a sign that read, "Publix - shopping would be a pleasure if ..."

"I support what the coalition is asking for," she said. "Publix should stand up and do the right thing. I want to trust where my food is coming from. I don't want to think people are oppressed by the place where I buy my tomatoes."

A farmworker must pick two tons of tomatoes in a 10-hour day, often without water or rest breaks, to make minimum wage, and sexual harassment of women in the fields is common, Perez said.

Although Publix doesn't own the farms where workers pick tomatoes, Perez said the corporation could exert influence for change.

The cyclists will ride north on U.S. 41 to Sun City Center and then take various back roads to Lakeland.

They will stay at churches along the way, and meals will be provided by congregations.

"This is a faith-centered ride," said Jordan Buckley, a member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida. "At every stop we will ask people to pray for our safety and for Ed Crenshaw to do the right thing."

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The riders' goal is to speak with Crenshaw, Oscar Otzoy said.

"For far too long, Publix's public relations department has fielded our requests," he said. "The message has not gotten to Mr. Crenshaw. So we decided to ride bicycles directly to Mr. Crenshaw's office and extend a personal invitation for him to come to Immokalee learn about the conditions in the fields."

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said she was uncertain whether Crenshaw would be in Lakeland when the cyclists arrive.

"But we have in previous visits had somebody available to greet them and accept their information," Patten said. "In regards to the penny a pound, Publix is more than willing to pay a penny a pound more. But we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer.

"Like any retailer, we don't set the price for tomatoes, and we don't negotiate. The price is set by the grower or the packer. We're willing to pay, but the grower should put it in the price of the tomatoes."

Two hundred miles is a long bicycle ride, especially in a South Florida summer, but the riders aren't worried.

"We will arrive," Otzoy said. "I have confidence in our strength from the hard work in the fields."

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