Many of the tomatoes McDonald's serves grew in the fields of southwest Florida. An overwhelming number of the workers who pick those tomatoes are immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. They earn about 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of product picked — a pay rate that has remained stagnant since 1978.
To earn just $50 in one day, these workers must pick two tons of product. It is a task that requires toiling from dawn until dusk, without the promise of overtime pay.
This is the poverty-wage labor McDonald's relies upon to keep its customers smiling, and plenty of people inside the Dinkytown franchise were doing just that during the lunch hour Oct. 27.
Outside, however, university students and activists with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were holding signs and passing out flyers in an attempt to let potential patrons know the true cost of lunch at the world's largest fast-food chain.
"Wanted for exploiting workers," read one flyer, with a sketch of the restaurant's mascot, Ronald McDonald. Another read, "McDonald's profits from farm worker poverty. Fair Food Now!"
It was the first public action of the fledgling Student/Farm worker Alliance (SFA) on the University of Minnesota campus. Chapters of the SFA sprouted up around the country about five years ago, when the CIW launched a national boycott of Taco Bell restaurants.
Like McDonald's, Taco Bell purchases a substantial portion of its tomatoes from southwest Florida. But in March 2005, Taco Bell agreed to partner with the CIW, paying a fairer price for its tomatoes and addressing the human rights problems that plagued its supply chain.
Now, the SFA wants to see McDonald's do the same.
"McDonald's has no need to employ these near-slavery conditions in the fields," said Brian Payne, who moved to the Twin Cities about two years ago after spending four years organizing the SFA nationwide. "That's what this is about: to make sure that McDonald's condemns slavery and meets the same conditions as Taco Bell has."
The effort has drawn a handful of college students from campuses throughout metro area. The students join for different reasons, but their distaste for McDonald's serves as a common bond.
"I hate how people recognize McDonald's as an American icon," said Kyle Johnson, a Des Moines native enrolled at the University of St. Thomas. "They destroy small businesses and exploit people, and I don't want that to be America."
The prevalence of McDonald's in American culture, though, is exactly what makes the corporation a daunting target for human-rights activists. So far, McDonald's has responded to the CIW's demands with indifference, deflecting responsibility onto its tomato suppliers.
"McDonald's is a part of our culture, while Taco Bell doesn't have that same impact on people's lives," said Adriana Barboza, an activist with the Twin Cities SFA.
"McDonald's, you find them on college campuses — and on every block down the street. So we're going to need to raise awareness at a different level."
Still, Barboza and the other activists outside the Dinkytown McDonald's agreed that it can be done.
"The Taco Bell boycott took six years for farm workers to get what they were demanding, but it proved the (technique) could bring success," Barboza said.
"McDonald's is the next target. The struggle for farm workers' rights will continue."
Reprinted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at firstname.lastname@example.org