JACKSON, Miss. (NCC) The National Council of Churches General Assembly on Thursday endorsed consumer boycotts of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickle products, both effective immediately, to put pressure for improvement of wages and working conditions of their suppliers’ farm workers. It is the largest and broadest U.S. religious body to join the boycotts.The National Council of Churches is the nation’s leading ecumenical organization. Its 36 mainline Protestant, African American, Orthodox and Episcopal member denominations comprise 50 million U.S. Christians in 140,000 local congregations nationwide. The actions came during the Nov. 4-6 annual meeting of the General Assembly, the NCC’s highest legislative body, made up of official delegates from the member denominations.

The NCC views boycotts as a measure of last resort, rendering the votes especially significant. It has been more than 15 years since the NCC last endorsed a boycott, related to Royal Dutch/Shell’s connections at that time to apartheid South Africa in May 1988.

The action joins the National Council of Churches to a national consumer boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products, called in March 2001 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an Immokalee, Fla.-based workers’ coalition. The Coalition launched the boycott following Taco Bell’s refusal to address exploitation in the fields of its tomato suppliers, particularly those of Six L’s Packing Company, one of the United States’ largest tomato growers.

The NCC joins the top governing bodies of three of its member denominations–the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ–along with the American Friends Service Committee in endorsing the boycott.

“Anytime a Christian community comes together and seeks to exercise economic justice in this way, it is because there is a very serious injustice that cannot be resolved in any other way,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a Florida farm worker and member of the steering committee of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, described farm workers’ low wages and lack of any benefits such as health insurance or overtime pay.

According to U.S. Department of Labor data, the average piece rate paid to tomato harvesters in 1980 was 40 cents per 32-pound bucket. Today, harvesters are paid the same average piece rate, earning less than one-half of what they did 20 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars. At the 40 cent piece rate, workers must pick and haul two tons of tomatoes to make $50.

“And in the most extreme circumstances we find modern day slavery,” said Chavez, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “By modern day slavery I mean people forced to work at gunpoint.”

“We are not saying Taco Bell is guilty of slavery,” Chavez said, “but when we ask Taco Bell, ‘can you guarantee to us those tomatoes weren’t picked by slave labor,’ the answer is ‘no.’ That’s precisely because they have never paid attention to the workers who make their profits possible. That’s why I am here today.”

The Rev. Noelle Damico, a United Church of Christ minister working with the PC(USA) on the boycott, spoke to the question, “Why Taco Bell?”

“Taco Bell is purchasing from one of the lowest paying suppliers in Florida, Six L’s Packing Company. Taco Bell uses a high percentage of fresh-picked, that means hand-picked, tomatoes in its products. They are owned by Yum! Brands, Inc., the largest fast-food chain in the world, which is in a good position to affect change in the wider agricultural industry.”

Boycotts, she said, are a “serious tool companies understand and to which they respond. They are a way for customers and the church to say we care that food is not only fast but fair and respects the human rights of the workers.”

The Taco Bell boycott is to remain in effect “until such time as Taco Bell:

–convenes serious three-way talks between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representatives of Taco Bell, and their tomato supplies to address exploitation and slavery in the fields;

–contributes to an immediate increase in farm worker wages through an increase in the per pound rate it pays for tomatoes, and

–works with the CIW, tomato industry representatives and tomato suppliers to establish a code of conduct that would ensure workers’ fundamental labor rights by defining strict wage and working condition standards required of all Taco Bell suppliers.”

In March 1999, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union representing farm workers, announced a consumer boycott of the products of Mt. Olive Pickle Company, based in Mt. Olive, N.C., the nation’s largest independent pickle producer and the nation’s second largest processor of pickles and pickle products.

According to FLOC, the consumer boycott was called following unsuccessful attempts to bring the management of Mt. Olive to the table to negotiate improved wages and working conditions for farm workers who produce the cucumbers processed by Mt. Olive. FLOC is seeking to negotiate a contract with the Mt. Olive Pickle Company on behalf of the workers.

The boycott has received the endorsement of more than 300 organizations, including two NCC member communions–the United Church of Christ and the Alliance of Baptists–along with the American Friends Service Committee and two organizations related to the NCC: Agricultural Missions, Inc., and the National Farm Worker Ministry.

The Assembly endorsed the Taco Bell Boycott unanimously, with five abstentions, and the Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott with two abstentions.

“We are a country that understands and respects capitalism and the free market,” said NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar after the votes. “But even good economic systems need to be improved. We must never build an economic system at the expense of the weak, at the expense of the poor, at the expense of those persons in our society who provide us the very food we eat and clothes we wear. The NCC will not be silent. The NCC will not rest until there is equity for the workers.”

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