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Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers take part in a march through the streets of Tampa, Fla., Friday, April 16, 2010, to try to persuade the supermarket chain Publix to pay more for its tomatoes and take a stand against abusive work conditions in the fields. The produce pickers group has already persuaded McDonald's, Whole Foods and Subway to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes.
Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers take part in a march through the streets of Tampa, Fla., Friday, April 16, 2010, to try to persuade the supermarket chain Publix to pay more for its tomatoes and take a stand against abusive work conditions in the fields. The produce pickers group has already persuaded McDonald's, Whole Foods and Subway to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. / AP

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1:10 A.M. — TAMPA — After persuading McDonald’s, Whole Foods and Subway they should pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes, a farmworkers group took on supermarket giant Publix on Friday.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched a three-day rally to try to persuade the Florida-based supermarket chain to pay more for its tomatoes and to take a stand against abusive work conditions in the fields. About 150 people dressed in green T-shirts and carrying signs marched through downtown Tampa, chanting slogans in Spanish and English.

“We want Publix to take responsibility,” said Leonel Perez, a 23-year-old tomato picker who lives in Southwest Florida. “What we are asking is not much. We want to care for our families with dignity.”

The 22-mile march ends Sunday in Lakeland at Publix headquarters. This isn’t the first time the group has railed against Publix, one of the country’s largest regional supermarket chains. A protest in Central Florida in December drew some 500 people. The group also is urging a boycott against Publix.

“Today we are going to send a clear message to Publix,” said coalition organizer Lucas Benitez in Spanish. “It’s time to end the poverty facing farmworkers.”

Publix said in a statement Thursday “the CIW’s complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with retailers and their customers.”

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the group’s call to not buy Publix tomatoes could end up hurting Florida residents and farmworkers by lessening demand for an important product. Florida provides most of the nation’s domestic winter tomato crop.

The coalition wants Publix to stop buying produce from growers that don’t meet certain standards for workers in the fields. The group claims it took Publix more than a year to stop buying from two Florida tomato farms where four people forced workers to pick crops and were convicted on slavery charges in 2008.

“It would be unconscionable to believe that our company would support a violation of human rights,” Patten’s statement said. “Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such despicable behavior.”

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The coalition, which claims membership of about 4,000 mostly migrant workers, gained national attention in recent years when it reached deals with fast-food chains, including McDonald’s and Burger King. Its most recent deal came with food service giant Aramark, which agreed April 1 to provide 1.5 cents more per pound of tomatoes and to abide by a supplier code of conduct.

According to Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California-Davis, gaining a penny more per pound would have a significant impact on farmworkers.

“It should increase their earnings a lot,” he said, estimating workers could see a 40 percent to 70 percent increase in earnings.

Although groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are pushing growers and companies to pay more to pickers, Martin said consumers probably wouldn’t see much of an increase at the supermarket.

“The farm price has very little to do with the retail price, and that’s true of all fruits and vegetables,” he said. “On average, farmers get 20 to 25 cents of each dollar. A fraction of that goes to farmworker. For instance, the labor cost in a dollar head of lettuce usually is less than 10 cents.”

Tomato pickers in Florida earn about 47 cents per 32-pound bucket. That can mean an average of about $12 an hour during the picking season for the hardest workers, usually immigrants who receive no health insurance or overtime. If all Florida tomatoes purchasers joined the penny deal, the coalition estimated farmworkers could almost double their earnings.

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