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NCC asks churches to study Taco Bell situation

3/10/2003 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By Sarah Vilankulu*

NEW YORK (UMNS) - As the Christian season of Lenten prayer and fasting begins, the National Council of Churches is requesting special prayers for farm workers "who have been made poor and vulnerable by fast-food and agricultural industries."

The council also asks churches to study farm worker issues, especially by focusing on the current struggle for just wages and working conditions of Florida farm workers who pick tomatoes that go into Taco Bell products.

At issue is the fact that farm workers are earning sub-poverty wages for picking tomatoes that are used in Taco Bell products. According to the Department of Labor, their wages (ranging from 40 to 50 cents per 32-pound bucket) have not changed in 20 years.

The Lenten call grew out of the council's support for some 50 Florida farm workers and scores of their supporters who conducted a hunger strike Feb. 24-March 5 outside Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, Calif. The workers' aim was to pressure the company to enter into negotiations with them and with the Florida growers who supply Taco Bell with tomatoes.

The farm workers belong to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in southwest Florida, which two years ago mounted a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell restaurants and products. The 50 workers traveled three days by bus to Irvine, where they fasted outdoors, often in inclement weather. In the second week of the fast, conditions had clearly taken a toll on participants.

In response to pleas from religious leaders worried about the fasters' health, the workers ended their fast in its 10th day with a 10 a.m. Ash Wednesday service at the hunger strike site. During the service, the workers broke bread with religious leaders.

The previous day, top NCC officials wrote to the workers, alarmed that one had already been hospitalized and others were on the brink of collapse. "With appreciation for your sacrifice, we now request that you allow the church to take on your concerns in our Lenten journey," the council's letter said. "We ask you to break your fast, even as we begin ours."

Signing the letter were Elenie Huszagh, NCC president; Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Thomas Hoyt, NCC president-elect; and the Rev. Robert Edgar, the agency's chief executive and a United Methodist pastor.

The workers received similar letters from the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the National Farm Ministry, and from Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles.

Both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, which already have endorsed the Taco Bell boycott, are NCC members. They have been instrumental in bringing the issue before the council's 36 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations and communions.

On Feb. 25, the Council's executive board, meeting in New York, adopted a resolution expressing solidarity with the coalition fasters and calling on Taco Bell "to enter into serious dialogue with the CIW."

Because agricultural workers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, the growers that employ the workers are under no legal obligation to dialogue with them. Therefore, the workers are seeking to establish "supply chain responsibility" by pressuring Taco Bell, a major purchaser of southwest Florida tomatoes, to ensure that its suppliers deal fairly with workers. The NCC said the company has not responded to requests for a meeting.

In addition to the resolution, the NCC Executive Board has initiated its own study of conditions leading to the boycott and has called on member communions to do the same. This study process will prepare the board for discussion at its October meeting on whether to propose that the NCC's General Assembly endorse the boycott. The General Assembly, the NCC's highest policymaking body, is to meet Nov. 10-13 in Jackson, Miss.

For more information on issues behind the Taco Bell boycott, visit the Web sites of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (, the Presbyterian Church (USA) (, the United Church of Christ ( and the National Farm Worker Ministry (

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*Vilankulu works in the NCC communications department.

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