The grocery chain is part of the focus of the Fair Food Campaign of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) because it’s the second largest in the US, said Gerardo Reyes, spokesman for the coalition.
"They have a lot of power in the industry. We're not asking them to change conditions for us. We're saying there is an alternative way to buy tomatoes."
Reyes said the campaign is not limited to Kroger, but seeks to get supermarkets in general, which he estimates are about 50 percent of the market for fresh fruit and vegetables, to use their buying power to "ensure workers at the bottom are treated fairly and receive premium pay at the end of the week."
CIW wants a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked. That's a small amount of extra money for Kroger to pay, but it would make a big and positive difference for workers, Reyes said, on day 4 of a 6 day fast CIW and its supporters are doing in Lakeland, Florida to pressure the supermarket chain, Publix.
Kroger spokesperson Jackie Siekmann on March 7 said the company has "extensively reviewed the CIW demands and stands firm in its decision to not sign on."
Reyes said Kroger's extensive review doesn't seem to have taken into account how their decision affects farm workers who pick their tomatoes.
"It (the CIW Fair Food campaign) alleviates the poverty that was created by the market in the first place... Big buyers like Kroger use their market power to drive prices down, squeezing the industry, and leaving no choice in the industry but to squeeze the workers to cut costs of production," Reyes said.
Columbus resident Sue Carter, who also is part of the fast in Lakeland, and who last year formed Ohio Fair Food, said the CIW demands are reasonable, regardless of whether some of the workers are undocumented.
Carter said tomato pickers in Florida make about $3.50 an hour working in intense heat and sun 12-14 hour day, for companies that have not signed on to the CIW fair food agreement.
"When they work for companies that have signed the agreement, they can make as much as $17,000 a year, which is not a princely sum," Carter said.
She said the CIW campaign also calls on companies to sign on to a zero-tolerance policy regarding abuses such as wage theft.
"They're paid for a bucket of tomatoes that holds 32 pounds. But crew leaders in the past have demanded they put as much as 40 pounds in one bucket, when they're only paid for 32 pounds. But the agreement that has been signed by 10 corporations, including Trader Joe's, protects workers against this," Carter said.
Reyes said corporate managers and shareholders of Kroger shouldn't worry that if they sign on to the CIW campaign they will be less able to compete with the companies who haven't.
"There is a growing market for products that are taking into account the fair treatment of workers," Reyes said.
Carter said the companies that have signed on are happy about their agreements with the CIW. Reyes said he respects the fact Kroger allows unions, but said the company can do better.
"If they are being fair with their labor force inside the stores, why not do it for the workers who are at the very bottom?"
Deb Steel of Columbus Jobs with Justice said Occupy Columbus and United Commercial Food Workers (UCFW) are with the CIW on this.
"The unions are plugged in to what's going on, but having more union members who know about the Fair Food campaign is something we'd like to see," Steele said.
In addition to protesting on Saturday, people can support the CIW's Kroger campaign by phoning, writing letters, and visiting store and corporate managers, said Terasia Bradford of United Students Against Sweatshops. Bradford said a boycott would be counter-productive.
“If you’re a shopper at Kroger, every time you go, you (should) say, ‘I still support you and I still come here and I shop here every day, but it’s harder and harder for me to shop here, knowing that workers aren’t being paid what they should be.’”