Fast Food with Integrity: The CIW Calls on Chipotle to support the Fair Food Agreement
By Oliver James
Chipotle Mexican Grill is one of the fastest-growing restaurant companies in the country. You may have seen their advertisements popping up on billboards around the country promoting their burritos as perhaps the most progressive tortilla-wrapped product ever to hit the market. Chipotle credits much of its explosive success to this branding campaign that emphasizes its commitment to “Food With Integrity.” A quick browse across the company’s web page does indeed demonstrate at least an appreciable commitment to upright food-purchasing practices: in respect to animals, the environment and labor. But as is often the case, if you ask the farmers themselves you’ll hear a very different story, one that falls far short of Chipotle’s self-proclaimed standards.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor stated that agricultural workers are “a labor force in significant economic distress” (2). The tomato pickers of the State of Florida are no exception. Going on 30 years of stagnant wages in a state that has been christened by one prosecutor as “ground-zero for modern-day slavery,” even basic human rights are not a guarantee. Acute consolidation in the corporate food industry (four companies control half of the U.S. grocery market) has allowed retail food giants to leverage their disproportionate purchasing power to demand lower and lower market prices, resulting in downward pressure on farmworker wages.
In 2008, at the onset of the Great Recession, USDA described “poverty among farmworkers as more than double that of all wage and salary employees,” citing farmworkers’ “low wages and sub-poverty earnings” in evidence of its conclusions (2).
Born in the back room of a local church, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) began organizing in 1993 to fight for the right to organize, better working conditions, and a fair wage. Carried by a well-oiled horizontal organizing structure and emboldened by new support from student, religious and labor organizations in-state and around the country, CIW launched more aggressive campaigns against involuntary servitude in Florida, and most recently, starting in 2001 with a national farmworker boycott against Taco Bell, the Campaign for Fair Food, a full-court press against some of the largest fast-food and supermarket giants in the country.
This strategic decision changed the rules of the game by brining the fight to the attention of the American public. Two of the largest restaurant chains in the world McDonald’s and Burger King, and the largest fast food purchaser of Florida tomatoes, Subway, have since come to the table after persistent pressure on behalf of the CIW and their Campaign for Fair Food. The Campaign asks retail companies to embrace several substantive, enforceable precedents including a Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers, transparency in purchasing, and a penny-per-pound pay raise increase. Buyers must commit to do business only with those growers who accept these standards.
So you would think Chipotle, proclaimed righteous poster child of the American “fast restaurant” industry, would be the first to come on board. Hardly so.
Despite assuring its customers on its website that “it has several policies in place designed to ensure that the products [used] are grown, made, and shipped without exploiting people,” Chipotle has resisted the binding language of the Fair Food Campaign instead opting to go it alone, defining for itself what level of participation will affect substantive farm labor reform and victory for the farmworkers in Florida (3).
To push back against this haughty attempt by Chipotle to slide by with unenforceable promises, CIW teamed up with the web-based organizing platform Sumofus.org to launch a national campaign calling on Chiptole and its CEO Steve Ells to agree to the terms of the Food First program, stop disrespecting farmworkers by disregarding their own demands, and start actually living up to the company’s commitment to fair and just food purchasing practices.
By the weekend of June 9th 2012 65,000 emails had arrived in Mr. Ell’s inbox with actions took place outside Chipotle stores around the country. In our hometown here in Oakland, a day of action is in the works for a new Chipotle store set to open on Lakeshore Avenue. It’s clearly only a matter of time before Chipotle is forced to own up.
The story of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a bona fide David-versus- Goliath story of an underdog versus a powerful establishment. A testament to the potency of organized labor and people-power, the CIW continues to be a living, breathing example that a well-oiled, grassroots campaign can bring even the most powerful corporations to the decision-making table of the people. Substantive, lasting and revolutionary, the word Chipotle uses when looking in the mirror, change to our broken food system will only come from the bottom-up, when the people most oppressed and politically powerless in this system are able to fashion solutions of their own. Anything less is corporate whitewashing.
1. Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “The Campaign for Fair Food.” June 11, 2012. http://ciw-online.org/101.html#cff
2. “Facts and Figures on Florida Farmworkers.” Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Online. June 11, 2012. http://ciw-online.org/101.html#facts
3. Chipotle Mexican Grill. “Food With Integrity.” June 11, 2012. http://www.chipotle.com/en-US/fwi/people/people.aspx
4. “Two great blog posts untangle Chipotle’s spin.” Denver Fair Food Online. June 11, 2012. http://denverfairfood.blogspot.com/2011/01/two-great-blog-posts-untangle...
5. Sean Sellers. “Chipotle Challenge: time to back up ‘food with integrity.’” Grist. http://grist.org/article/steve-ells-will-you-accept-the-chipotle-challen...