This week, a group of 900 food processing employees who work for Taylor Farms — the largest supplier of fresh-cut produce in the U.S. — gathered at Chipotle locations across California to protest "poverty wages, disrespect, and severe violations of their most basic rights." Taylor distributes its products through third parties like Golden State Foods, a supplier to Chipotle, McDonald's, and several California school districts. The union representing these workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, has publicly condemned Taylor's management in media releases, and is using the visibility of Chipotle locations to draw attention to its cause. In the process, the union is disrupting service at Chipotle locations.
The safety of plant workers is often connected to the safety of the food coming out of that plant.
The bulk of the Teamsters' complaints are tied to Taylor's Tracy, Calif., plant, which protesters say has been the site of a number of OSHA violations (44 in the past year, they say, though Taylor Farms wouldn't confirm that number) and was the site of an alleged incident in which a chlorine gas spill caused workers to "vomit, faint, and have nose-bleeds, yet managers ordered them to keep working." Twenty workers were hospitalized, according to an appeal sent on behalf of The Coalition of Ethics and Safety in America's Food Chain to the CEOs of Chipotle and Albertson's/Safeway and provided to Eater.
The farm in Tracy has also been linked to E. coli-tainted celery, which was recalled by the FDA in November 2015 (the bad celery was not linked to the E. coli outbreak that occurred recently at Chipotle, but was used in Costco's recalled rotisserie salad). According to information (embedded below) released by the Teamsters, Taylor has had 25 recalls in the last four years. Several requests for confirmation and comment from Taylor's Pacific office and its corporate office have so far gone unanswered.
An April 12 protest took place at Chipotle's San Jose location, and a protest at the Livermore store took place April 14. Another protest, in Sacramento, is slated for April 15.
The group isn't specifically protesting Chipotle's recent food safety issues, but there is a link. Protesters want Taylor to recognize their union and open negotiations on a labor contract. But the union notes that the safety of plant workers is often connected to the safety of the food coming out of that plant. Doug Bloch is the political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents more than 2,500 teamsters working at Taylor Farms' Salinas plant, the farm's flagship operation. "We don't have those problems with worker safety in Salinas," he says. "And the customers don't have those problems with the produce coming out of that plant."
Though Bloch is quick to note that there isn't a direct link between Chipotle's recent E. coli outbreak and the produce coming from Taylor Farms's Tracy plant, he believes "it's only a matter of time" before issues at the plant start affecting the restaurants it supplies. After all, problems at all companies do have a way of trickling down. "There will be more citations coming," says Bloch. "The Tracy plant has been cited [by OSHA] for unsafe machinery and equipment, exit doors being blocked by pallets, exit doors being locked in some cases. The most interesting and sad part of it is that, in 2012, 20 workers were taken out of that plant in ambulances after a chemical spill, where they were exposed to chlorine dioxide. In 2015, the exact same accident happened, in the same plant, and the same number of workers were hospitalized. "
Does a company in the middle of a crisis have time to delve into another issue involving workers' rights?
Similar protests took place at stores in Sacramento and Manteca in late March. As for when they will end? "I don't know," says Bloch. "Right now, the protests [which so far average 10 to 15 picketers] are growing. And we're getting a good response from the customers we interact with. In fact, we'll soon be expanding the protests to other Taylor Farms customers, as well." For now, says Bloch, "we are hoping that Chipotle talks to Taylor Farms and urges them to fix these problems." Chipotle has carried a torch for sustainable agriculture, organic and non-GMO food policy, and the rights of its own employees in the past. But does a company in the middle of a crisis have time to delve into another, tangentially related issue involving workers' rights?
An employee at the Chipotle in Livermore, Calif., confirmed via phone that protesters picketed in front of the location today, and that they were targeting Taylor Farms. After some commotion at the restaurant, the employee was unable to provide further comment.
However, a Chipotle spokesperson sent the following statement to Eater: "We understand that there is a labor dispute between a union and one of our suppliers, and that the union has decided to take its protest to some of our restaurants. We apologize to our customers if their mealtime enjoyment is disrupted by the union, however, this is a dispute between the union and our supplier, and Chipotle is not interjecting itself in their disagreement."
See the protesters' flyer below: