Ramirez spoke matter-of-factly about the grueling work of picking tomatoes for menial wages, under the constant threat of physical abuse from employers who have been accused of illegally detaining their workers.
But after telling his story, Ramirez was sure to make one thing clear: "We as the workers are not asking for charity. We aren't asking for handouts."
What the CIW does want is an improved wage structure for the thousands of workers, mostly Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants, who pick the tomatoes served in America's fast-food restaurants.
The CIW is asking for just a penny more per pound of product picked – a raise Taco Bell granted workers two years ago, in response to boycotts from students, religious groups and other CIW supporters. It may not sound like much, but the CIW says workers picking tomatoes for Taco Bell now earn almost twice as much as they otherwise would.
But other fast-food chains – including McDonald's, the coalition's latest target – have been slow to follow Taco Bell's lead.
A public-relations battle
Ramirez, in town in March to drum up support for a demonstration outside McDonald's corporate headquarters in Chicago on April 13, said the world's largest restaurant chain already has indicated it's going to play hardball.
"McDonald's is a multi-national corporation that isn't concerned at all about the suffering of the workers who pick its tomatoes," he said.
McDonald's net profits in 2006 were $3.5 billion, a 36 percent increase from 2005. The fast food leader spends more than $1 billion in advertising every year, and it recently gave its CEO an $8 million bonus. Yet the company refuses to pay a penny more per pound for its tomatoes.
What's more, McDonald's has initiated an aggressive public-relations campaign to counter the CIW boycott, according to Ramirez.
"McDonald's did a study after we came to them that said farm workers aren't actually poor," Ramirez said. "The study said even the slowest, laziest worker earns $9 an hour picking tomatoes."
McDonald's study claimed fast workers earned $12 per hour and the most efficient earned $18 per hour picking tomatoes in the Immokalee fields.
"We started asking ourselves, 'Are we actually earning as much as a firefighter or a university worker?'" Ramirez said.
After releasing its study, McDonald's stocked its restaurants with flyers touting a code of conduct for its tomato suppliers. Ramirez called the document cosmetic and said the standards reflect little more than business as usual in the fields.
"The only new thing was free gloves given to all the workers and psychological counseling for sad workers," he said. "It seems funny to us, but some people might see (the flyer) and think the conditions of the farm workers really aren't that bad."
Taking to the streets
The best way to educate the public about the realities of life in the tomato fields is by public action, according to Brian Payne, a Twin Cities-based activists with the CIW and the Student Farmworker Alliance. Payne translated Ramirez's presentation March 23.
Afterwards, Ramirez and Payne led a small demonstration in front of the McDonald's in Dinkytown, near the university campus. Demonstrators held up signs and handed out flyers to would-be patrons.
A few protesters went into the restaurant and talked to employees about the campaign to improve working conditions for farm workers.
"This is an appeal for students and adults to stand up for workers," Payne said. "This is an appeal to partner in solidarity with the workers."
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