Advocacy & Activism, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Wages

Groupthink Isn’t Sustainable

From SustainableBusinessForum.com, Ted Coine, 2 Dec 2011.

In my last Sustainable Leadership post, I shared a bit about the struggle between migrant tomato pickers, represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and two companies: Trader Joe’s and Publix Supermarkets. Both of these companies are, to various extents, beloved brands that have cultivated reputations as highly ethical.

…Which would make one think that, when asked to pay just one penny more per pound for tomatoes, a penny that will be passed directly on to the pickers, these companies would be happy to do it. Imagine the public relations coup such a decision would bring: “Trader Joe’s and Publix Both Eager To Do The Right Thing” the headline might read.  Instead, the headline as it stands is closer to: “What Are Trader Joe’s And Publix Thinking?”

What indeed? Let’s take a step back from the press releases of both sides so we can lay bare the facts.

  • America’s agricultural pickers are among the very poorest of our working poor. Many of these workers are migrants, the vast majority foreign-born.
  • Their poverty and their often-undocumented status mean that they are underrepresented politically.
  • When labor protection laws were passed in the 1930s, farm workers were intentionally excluded. They remain unable to legally form unions for collective bargaining with employers.
  • These workers are paid per pound picked, so they are also unprotected by minimum wage laws.
  • The employers of these workers are the farm owners, the growers. The restaurants and grocers who buy the tomatoes and sell them to the public are not their employers.

That last point is telling. As Publix states on its website, for instance,

“…we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor. That is the responsibility of their employer.” (detailed summary)

There’s only one problem with that argument. Even after years of trying, the growers were nowhere closer to raising their rate of pay. Wages were stuck at 1980s levels, and were not adjusted for inflation. That means that today, a worker must pick many pounds more just to equal his pay of thirty years ago.

The workers were stuck. The growers were not budging on wages. The CIW had no leverage over them. They couldn’t legally unionize and strike. Because of their legal status and poverty, they had little to no representation in state or national politics. But they were desperate, and they knew they were right. So they got creative.

The struggle we see today, between the CIW on one side, Publix and Trader Joe’s on the other, is the result of this creativity. Basically, the CIW circumvented their employers and has been leveraging public outrage to effect change. The growers might not care what the public thinks of them, because they don’t sell anything to the public: they sell their goods to other companies. But Taco Bell (owned by Yum! Brands) cared. So the CIW waged a public relations campaign to pressure Taco Bell to pay an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they bought. After a struggle, Taco Bell relented.

So too did McDonald’s. Then Burger King. Then Whole Foods.* Then, finally, the growers relented, and signed on to the CIW’s plan to pass that penny along from the buyers to the pickers.

Now it’s Trader Joe’s and Publix’s turn in the spotlight. And even though these two companies are publicly committed to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), they have fallen into the familiar pattern of resistance shown by their predecessors.

Even my most laissez faire, politically conservative acquaintances are shocked by the positions of Trader Joe’s and Publix in this matter. “It’s only a penny!” one remarked the other day. Another surprised me by saying, “This is so black and white! What’s the problem?”

This brings up something that carries far beyond tomatoes, to Sustainable Leadership in general. As a professor of psychology recently asked me, “What is the larger issue with these companies? Surely they can’t be resisting because of a penny. There must be something deeper.”

Here, then, are some thoughts on Sustainable Leadership and ethical decision-making.

  • No one wants to see himself as evil. Push a kid on the playground, he’ll push back. I’d wager there is at least some of that spirit of moral self-defense with these companies.
  • Business leaders relish their independence. I was one, and my clients are today, so I can relate. When pressured to act, the natural reaction is to defy that pressure, to exert independence.
  • This resistance leads to groupthink, as leaders circle the wagons and surround themselves with like-minded thinkers. Opposing viewpoints fail to get through in this type of environment.
  • When pushed as these companies are, their press releases read like they were written by lawyers: full of point-by-point justification, but often missing the larger picture of right and wrong.
  • Leaders often become convinced of the proverbial slippery slope. In this case the thinking might go, “If we give the tomato pickers an extra penny, next we’ll hear from the cattle farm hands, who want an extra dollar an hour – from us, not the ranchers. Where will it end?”
  • I would be surprised if there weren’t class considerations involved. To many 20th-Century leaders, the thinking is that workers should be supplicants, grateful for “gifts” such as benefits and raises in pay. Adding racial and ethnic considerations to this will only intensify their us-versus-them mentality.

Please note that neither Trader Joe’s nor Publix have replied to my repeated requests for comment. I can only speculate as to which, if any, of the previous six considerations apply to these firms.

But I hope these insights prove useful to leaders who wish to act sustainably, and to those who would seek to influence them. A step back to evaluate motivation is essential to strategic decision-making. If CSR isn’t a strategic imperative, I don’t know what is.

My questions for these two prominent brands are this:

  1. Is your resistance really about a penny per pound for tomatoes?
  2. Is that penny worth it?

*To be fair to Whole Foods, this decision was fairly painless once the Naples, Florida store manager championed the CIW’s cause with his headquarters.

Source: SustainableBusinessForum.com, “Groupthink Isn’t Sustainable” by Ted Coine, 2 Dec 2011.

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