An Open Letter to Ronald McDonald

Farmworker exploitation & paternalistic treatment of youth: I`m leavin` it 

Listen up clown,

This is a member of your so-called marketing “sweet spot” talking to you.

I do not claim to represent all 18 to 24 year olds, nor do I need to because very soon you will encounter an avalanche of correspondence from us, and we, as a diverse, decentralized movement, will have a variety of ways of communicating with you. Perhaps by dispatching letters to your executive bosses, converting the bland walls of McDonald’s’ outlets with our art installations, and fomenting campaigns at our schools to oust your Big Mac-peddling establishments from campus.

Now, Ronald, this is not a threat. It is a reasonable assumption based on the spectrum of tactics we students and youth employed during the Taco Bell Boycott, a campaign which Mother Jones awarded the Campus Activism Victory of the Year in 2005. If you want to understand how we think (and we know you do, or else how would you convince us to buy your burgers?) then understand this: we think the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the immigrant farmworker-led crew of activists in southern Florida calling on your bosses to fix their complicity in widespread labor abuse, has initiated a dynamic, unstoppable movement.

A century back, Ricardo Flores Magon, a native of Oaxaca and a one-time immigrant farmworker in the U.S., wrote of the revolution transpiring in his homeland that:

The people of Mexico find themselves in these moments of open rebellion against their oppressors, and, taking part in the general insurrection are those who sustain modern ideas: those convinced of the fallacy of political remedies as a means of redeeming the proletariat from economic slavery, those who do not believe in the goodness of paternalistic governments nor in the impartiality of laws worked out by the bourgeoisie, those who know that the emancipation of the workers must be carried out by the workers themselves, those convinced of the need for direct action.

While the CIW also comprises workers originally from Guatemala, Haiti and other areas of the Global South, Magon`s words strikingly echo the spirit of struggle in the CIW’s pursuit of what they term Fair Food.

Today, food harvesting in the U.S. is anything but fair: tomato pickers in Immokalee must pick two tons of tomatoes one-by-one – literally 4,000 pounds – just to make $50, and they regularly work 10 to 12 hour days with no overtime pay, no right to organize, no sick days and no benefits whatsoever. But instead of begging the government to intervene (local politicos are reliant on campaign contributions from the agriculture bigwigs whose industry dominates Florida’s economy), the CIW demands change from those directly responsible for their oppression. This is you and your imperial fast food compatriots, Ronald.

It is McDonald’s which authorizes the suffering of farmworkers to secure their profits. No one else in McDonald’s’ supply chain – the series of business deals moving a tomato from the misery of the fields to your Happy Meals – walks away so handsomely, and we youth have taken notice, thanks principally to the brave denunciations of farmworkers themselves.

After their defeat in 2004, Taco Bell affirmed the ability of fast food leaders to remedy abuses perpetrated at the other end of their supply chain by caving in to all of the CIW’s demands including wage increases and a progressive Code of Conduct (whereby the CIW themselves would investigate reported labor abuses).

But there are 3 other gems of insight regarding corporate campaigns that we, youth organizing with the CIW for Fair Food, have gleaned from the Taco Bell Boycott:

1. Given both the U.S.’ intensely anti-labor climate as well as the chilling power of capitalism’s most influential players, it is often more strategic to organize for social change at the point of consumption rather than the point of production.

Over the last decade and a half, CIW members have held community-wide work stoppages, hunger strikes and multi-day marches across Florida to pressure employers to raise their wages and improve their working conditions. But substantial change only finally came about when, based on an evolved understanding of who is predominantly responsible for their condition, the CIW switched targets – from crew bosses to Taco Bell – and, consequently, we consumers were able to organize ourselves in solidarity.

2. In today’s capitalist world, image is everything. Therefore, for many corporations their brand is also an Achilles heel.

Your bosses know this well. It is precisely why they invest $1.2 billion annually in advertising and why they have worked to sculpt the Golden Arches into one of the planet’s most recognizable images. It is exactly why Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and an outspoken ally of the CIW, explains that 96% of U.S. schoolchildren, when shown your picture, can identify you by name, Ronald.

In 1997, when your bosses sued a pair of Greenpeace pamphleteers for libel, the judge ruled that “the sting of the leaflet to the effect that the Plaintiffs exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurize their parents into going to McDonald’s is justified. It is true.” This is why your existence, Ronald, is, frankly, repugnant.

Your life is an affront to the noble mission of clowning – you do not entertain children to make them happy, you seduce them into buying unhealthy food yielded from a supply chain grounded in the exploitation of farmworkers. Thankfully, your half-brother Rolando the Clown is tirelessly persuading McDonalds’ customers to help you see the error of your ways. And we, the thousands of youth intent on building a Fair Food Nation, Ronald, have his and the CIW’s back.

3. A decentralized network – comprised of numerous local chapters acting autonomously and coordinating their efforts – is powerfully effective because it diffuses consciousness and struggle to multiple fronts while empowering local groups to determine for themselves what actions they will take, thereby diversifying tactics nationwide and complicating response efforts for the corporation under attack.

Over the course of the Taco Bell Boycott, students from over 400 schools participated in organizing with the CIW for Fair Food. By the time Taco Bell cried uncle, we youth – operating within the Student/Farmworker Alliance network – had either purged or prevented Taco Bell from doing on-campus business at 22 different schools. As you can imagine, the public relations fall-out was devastating for Taco Bell, and their little dog, too.

Already, even without the CIW having asked allies to boycott McDonald’s, we youth are organizing to make you and your bosses recognize farmworkers’ dignity and to collaborate with them directly to remedy the inhumane pay and abusive treatment they endure. In October, in what we deemed the 1-2 Punch (two days of youth-led solidarity events supporting the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food), we launched forty actions in twenty-one states primarily aimed at McDonald’s.

And in just a few weeks, from April 13-14, thousands of us will be converging at your corporate offices to demand justice for tomato pickers, followed by a spirited parade and carnaval in downtown Chicago. We have caravans leaving from more than 25 cities across the nation, and just recently, Tom Morello and Zach de la Rocha – formerly of Rage Against the Machine – joined countlesss others in RSVPing for what promises to be a historic weekend of art, music and cultural resistance. If we don’t see you there Ronald, I promise you will see (and hear) us.

It is not enough that your bosses deny farmworkers the fair wages their hard labor clearly merits, they also assume that their marketing “sweet spot” – that’s us – doesn’t care about their treatment of the folks picking their tomatoes. Or, equally insulting, your bosses assume that we are so ignorant that we would believe them over the word of the individuals who are enduring this abuse. (In this sense, we are not just fighting for your bosses to recognize farmworkers` dignity but indeed that of their youthful prospective diners: us – and in the process of that crucial discovery we trust that your bosses will locate and nurture their own dignity as well.)

It’s like this, Ronald: In the same way that you apply make-up to conceal the face of a man more interested in making a buck than the welfare of the young minds you are manipulating, so too do your bosses shamefully attempt to hide the miserable pay and work conditions that fuel their profit-making.

After the CIW went public in their petition for McDonald’s’ intervention, your bosses tried to pretend that farmworkers aren’t really poor. A startlingly shoddy statistical study emerged, paid for by your bosses, which attempted to distort the wages of tomato pickers. In little time, labor academics and student organizations—including United Students Against Sweatshops, United States Student Association, National Latino/a Law Student Association and Student Labor Action Project – tore it to shreds.

I must admit, Ronald, we remain puzzled as to how the folks responsible for allegedly displacing the Christian cross with the Golden Arches as one of the world’s most identifiable images somehow let this error-riddled survey go public. (I know you must have heard about this gaffe from some co-worker back at headquarters, undoubtedly followed by rolled eyes and a furious slap to the forehead).

Ronald, simply put, McDonalds’ business ethics are revolting, so as your self-deemed “target market” we youth will likewise be revolting against you and your bosses, declaring you our target – until the cruel practices that McDonald’s allows to flourish in the fields of Florida are finally abolished, and necessarily under the direction of the farmworkers themselves.


Jordan Buckley
Community Labor Action Project, @TX
Austin affiliate of the Student/Farmworker Alliance network

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