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By Dick Meister

You've doubtless seen those ubiquitous Taco Bell commercials -- tacos and burritos in bright living color, cheap and tasty and ready whenever you are at some 6,700 locations nationwide.

But life is not so cheery and bright for the 15,000 impoverished workers in the Immokalee area of southern Florida who harvest the tomatoes that go into the Taco Bell treats.

They make no more than $7,500 a year. They have no paid holidays or overtime pay, no health insurance, sick leave, pensions or other benefits, no union rights. The workers, most of them undocumented Latinos, have little choice but to accept whatever conditions are imposed on them by the growers in what's known as "the nation's tomato capital."

Some have rebelled, however. They've formed a coalition with student activists and other supporters to try to pressure Taco Bell, one of the growers' primary customers, into using its considerable influence to get them to change their highly exploitative ways.

Their treatment of workers is "a national disgrace," says Lucas Benitez, a coalition leader. "We as farmworkers are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our poverty."

That's where you come in. Benitez and the other workers are asking that we boycott Taco Bell until it agrees to help them.

They've tried just about everything else -- a strike, petitions from thousands of people backing their demands for better treatment, a 230-mile march across south Florida, a 30-day hunger strike by six coalition members.

So far, Taco Bell has been as obstinate as the growers, insisting that the workers' treatment is strictly a matter between workers and growers. But like Taco Bell officials, grower representatives have repeatedly refused even to meet with coalition representatives.

The workers aren't seeking very much, certainly nothing that the growers and Taco Bell couldn't very easily afford. Growers' labor costs, rock-bottom to begin with, haven't risen in real terms for at least two decades. And Taco Bell is a unit in the world's largest fast-food chain, along with Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So what are the workers after? Mainly the basic right to have growers sit down with them to discuss how to improve their miserable working conditions.

They want Taco Bell to join them in that demand and to voluntarily increase by a penny the 40 cents per pound it pays for tomatoes, getting agreement from growers to pass the added penny directly to pickers. That would almost double their current pay of just a little over one cent per pound and increase the price of a taco or burrito by less than a half-cent if Taco Bell passed the cost on to its customers.

An extra penny isn't much, true. But it would be enough to finally give the pickers the living wage that few of them, if any, have ever had.

What could be better? Workers would make significant gains without serious financial loss to their employers. Employers would gain a more stable, more highly motivated workforce. Taco Bell would win plaudits, and presumably more customers and dollars, for doing the right thing.

It's time, at any rate -- way past time -- that we acted in behalf of the tomato harvesters who are among our most poorly treated workers. It won't take much. Just don't buy that taco, don't buy that burrito, until they are guaranteed the decent treatment that all of us deserve.

Copyright c 2002 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist, who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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