Florida farm workers protest outside Phenix City Publix

Phenix City people patronizing the Summerville Road Publix were presented with a protest Sunday.

Some were perplexed, asking police and reporters what the protesters were protesting.

They were farm workers from Immokalee, Fla., a big tomato-growing region right outside Fort Myers, and they were marching, chanting and waving signs at the corner of Riverchase Drive and Summerville Road to protest the Publix supermarket chain because it won’t pressure tomato suppliers to charge it a penny more per pound to improve worker wages.

A Publix representative said the grocery chain doesn’t get involved in disputes between its suppliers and their labor force. It would pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes if suppliers sought it, Brenda Reid, a Publix media and community relations manager based in Atlanta.

Among the farm workers was Gerardo Reyes, 35, who in Spanish through an interpreter said Publix uses its buying power to push down tomato prices, to which growers respond by cutting wages. Pointing to a red bucket tomato pickers use, he said it holds 32 pounds, for which laborers are paid 45-50 cents per bucketful, a rate that hasn’t changed since 1978. If Publix joined what’s called the Fair Food Program and pressured growers to pay a penny per pound more, they could make a living wage.

They also would be protected from exploitation, as the Fair Food Program insists on a set of principles prohibiting sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse. Companies participating in the program include Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. The campaign also has agreements with Burger King, Subway, McDonald’s and Taco Bell, the latter pressured to comply through a boycott that began in 2001.