Yesterday’s grand opening ceremony at Publix, and the VIP pre-opening Thursday, January 12, went off without a hitch; heavily attended by a supportive Vilano Beach, South Ponte Vedra Beach and St Augustine shopping community.
On January 7, Historic City News published a “Letter to the Editor” from Terry Buckenmeyer calling for residents to picket St Augustine’s newest Publix supermarket as a show of “solidarity” for the struggle of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
In Buckenmeyer’s letter, he wrote that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been fighting since the 1990′s for fair wages and humane treatment for the farm workers in Immokalee, Florida — who pick the tomatoes we eat every day.
“Farm workers earn the same money as they did in the late 1980′s and a penny-a-pound more would bring them up minimum wage,” Buckenmeyer wrote. “There have been ten cases of literal slavery in the fields prosecuted here in Florida, one in St Johns County.”
Historic City News reporters spoke with Publix Regional Director Alan Thomas about organized protestors representing the Immokalee Workers from the Gainesville General Membership Branch, Industrial Workers of the World, Occupy St Augustine, Fair Food Jacksonville, and Gainesville’s Interfaith Action for Immigrant Justice.
This is not the first time Thomas has heard of the workers or the types of organizations expressing grievances against Publix — he was not upset by them; saying to boycott the purchase of Publix tomatoes ironically hurts Florida farmworkers and the citizens of Florida who will see a withering Florida produce industry.
Publix is not alone. Yum Foods, Subway, McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Aramark and others report having already been pressured by the Coalition and labor organizers acting in their name.
According to published reports, the initial complaints against Publix from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers regarded wages. Since farm workers are not employed by Publix, the company explained that those complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with retailers and their customers.
A year later, Coalition of Immokalee Workers launched their Spring 2010 campaign against Publix; shifting their focus to “human rights” issues. Since last year, Publix, and other grocery retailers, are being targeted by the Coalition as part of their 2011 “Do the Right Thing” campaign; focusing on “modern day slavery” issues.
Publix addressed the latest campaign by the Coalition, determining the following points:
• By federal law, workers must be paid at least a minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. In some states, like Florida, a higher minimum wage is paid — currently $7.67. If growers want to pay more per hour, it can be based on pounds picked, or any other non-discriminatory method.
• Minimum wage has significantly changed since 1978, therefore, claims of unchanged work rates since then are unfounded.
• Employers should pay wages – not those outside the employment relationship. Slavery is a criminal offense and should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted under existing laws.
• If productivity standards are too strenuous, farmworkers should work for another employer. A shortage of labor will require employers to revise standards or working conditions.
• Agriculture workers are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act.
Publix Super Markets, Inc., issued this response to the 2011 allegations:
As a partner with the community, it would be unconscionable to believe that our company would support a violation of human rights.
We are unaware of a single instance of slavery existing in our supply chain.
Publix is also unaware of a single instance of payment of less than the required minimum wage.
Publix does not support any human rights violations and believes that our local, state and federal laws would prohibit such despicable behavior.
If there were such grievances, we would direct those complaints to the appropriate local, state and federal government agencies.
Publix is a company founded by and committed to our associates and the communities we serve. For more than 80 years, we have supported our local communities, the economy, growers and farmers. We have earned the respect of our peers and have been consistently recognized on various “Best of” lists because of our values, mission and successful focus of making Publix the retailer of choice for our customers. We would never knowingly disappoint our customers or communities.
“This store opening is a very special event in the history of our company,” Thomas said. Fortunately, the residents and business community rallied to show their gratitude for Publix’ investment — and it was evident to Thomas. “This is certainly the warmest welcome I’ve ever seen a Publix get, coming into a community.”
“We are an associate-owned, Florida based supermarket,” Publix corporate representative for our area, Dwaine Stevens, explained. “Any campaign to support workers should support, rather than target, the associate owned supermarket. Associate ownership is an important difference between Publix and its competitors.”
Kathy Lobinsky, the new Store Manager, will have approximately 110 employees. While many staff members are being brought in from other stores, Lobinsky said her store hired about 40 new local employees. Lobinsky transferred from the Anastasia Island store and her Assistant Manager, Mike Corrigan, transferred from Cobblestone Village.
“We are consistently recognized as a Great Place to Work,” Stevens pointed out. “We are unlike any of our competitors with regard to treatment of our employees. This is validated by simply entering any Publix store.”
“The Coalition follower’s campaign against Publix is one directed at an acknowledged employer of choice and a great place to work,” Stevens said.
Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News staff photographer