Kennedys Help Workers End Fast at Publix Office


LAKELAND | Forty-four years after Kerry Kennedy’s father, Robert F. Kennedy, broke bread when Cesar Chavez ended his fast for migrant rights, she broke bread with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Saturday outside of Publix Super Markets Inc.’s headquarters after a six-day fast.

Kerry Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, broke large loaves of bread and handed pieces to the 61 people who participated in the hunger strike. The group spent the week in Lakeland protesting because Publix has not signed the group’s Fair Food Agreement.

If it signed the agreement, Publix would pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes harvested by the workers. The group has worked since 2001 to get grocery stores and restaurants to sign the agreement, according to the group’s website. Since then 10 corporations including McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe’s have signed the agreement.

Kerry Kennedy, her mother and brother, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., joined hundreds of people in a three-mile rally from the Publix store on Harden Boulevard to the chain’s headquarters near Airport Road.

Kerry Kennedy called on the Jenkins family, leaders of the Lakeland-based chain, to begin negotiations over the agreement.

"Your family can help bring justice to the farm workers," Kerry Kennedy said.

Referencing a famous quote from her father, she encouraged the protesters to remember their efforts in the future.

"You will say ‘I did this,’ " she said.

The group lined a fence in front of the headquarters with colorful messages and white carnations asking the supermarket to consider the agreement. The group listened to music and various supporters, including Mexican performing artist Jose Jose during the ceremony to end the fast.

Members of the coalition said Saturday that Publix officials had not spoken with the group about the agreement.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten told Bay News 9 Saturday that the supermarket was not going to sign the agreement because it was a labor dispute.

"We simply cannot get involved," she said. "Publix is not their employer."

Patten said the supermarket would pay the higher price if the tomato industry as a whole decided to increase prices.

Nely Rodriguez, 46, of Immokalee, fasted since Monday. She said she would like to see Publix executives speak with the coalition because of its large presence in Florida.

Rodriguez has lived in the United States for 8 years and has worked as a laborer for much of that time.

She said many workers often spend little time with their families because of the long hours they work in the fields.

"It sticks with you for life," she said in Spanish. "If there was more money for workers, moms would have a better life."

Workers make 50 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes, according to the coalition. To make at least a minimum wage of $7.67 per hour, a worker has to pick about 153 buckets in a 10-hour day.

After watching a video about the working conditions of Immokalee workers, Mary Ann and Bob Huttick of Seminole decided to come Saturday to support their efforts.

"These workers haven’t had a penny raise in 30 to 40 years," Mary Ann Huttick said. "When you consider the price of a soda, you think you would pay an extra penny for your tomato."

Mike Larson, 60, of the 737 Union that represents the food and beverage industry at Disney, said he and a dozen union members came to support the coalition’s cause.

"The goal is a decent standard of living and the passion behind the cause," he said.

The group vowed Saturday afternoon to return to Lakeland until Publix executives speak to them. During the ceremony, many pointed toward the chain’s shiny green building and chanted, "We’ll be back."

Rodriguez said the group would likely come back during the summer to hold more rallies.

"We will continue until Publix comes to the negotiation table," she said.