TAMPA, Fla. —  On the eve of a workers group’s protest against a major southeastern supermarket chain, the leader of Florida’s tomato industry says retail and foodservice buyers aren’t participating with grower-shippers in a program they recently started to improve farmworker pay.

On April 16, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began three days of planned protests against Publix Super Markets Inc., with members rallying in downtown Tampa and marching from there to Publix’s Lakeland headquarters.

The group has long pressured foodservice buyers, including McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell), to demand Florida’s growers pay farmworkers an extra penny-per-pound of tomatoes picked.

No foodservice or retail customers have begun working with Florida packers through a social responsibility program the industry established in February to pay tomato pickers more money.

The program — run by the individual packers and their customers — allows participating customers to designate what supplemental wages would pass from growers to workers through an escrow account.

“So far, we have not had any customers step forward to do it,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, “That participation requires a customer and a grower-shipper.

Tomato labor group protests against Publix
Tomato labor group protests against Publix

“Quite honestly, I think everyone is scared to death of the pickets and protests like we are seeing this weekend in Lakeland against Publix by a group that is irrational and radical,” Brown said. “It appears they (the customers) would rather participate with CIW than participate directly with grower community.”

Publix has resisted the CIW’s demands and in media reports stated it’s not up to the supermarket chain to set worker pay rates.

En route to Lakeland, the labor group plans to picket a Publix supermarket in Plant City on April 17.