Busloads of tomato pickers and their supporters will stage a three-day Farmworker's Freedom March from Tampa to Lakeland beginning Friday morning to draw attention to wages and forced labor issues.
"We have people coming from all around the country and all around the state," said Julia Perkins, spokeswoman for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human-rights organization that is coordinating the demonstration. "We don't know what the numbers are expected to be early in the march, but we have buses coming in from New York and Washington, D.C., by midday.
She estimated there would be probably a couple of hundred people starting the march near downtown Tampa, and a couple of thousand will finish it in Lakeland.
She said the focus of the march is prices paid for tomatoes by Publix, which has its headquarters in Lakeland. She said farm workers have pressed the grocery chain to increase the price it pays for a pound of tomatoes by a penny. Other retailers, including four of the largest fast-food restaurants, have agreed to the hike, the first for tomato pickers in more than 30 years, she said.
Publix, she said, "is kind of one of the last ones holding out."
The rally also will address the issue of forced labor. She said seven recent cases in Florida have shed light on the practice of farm owners charging workers for food, rent, rides to and from the fields and other necessities, and forcing them to work off the debt.
The march begins at Chillura Park in downtown Tampa at 9 a.m. Friday and heads north on Nebraska Avenue and then east on Busch Boulevard ending at the Publix in Temple Terrace at 6 p.m.
Saturday's march will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Publix supermarket on James Redman Parkway in Plant City and head to Lakeland, ending at the grocery's headquarters. Sunday's march begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Publix on South Florida Avenue in Lakeland and ends at Munn Park with a demonstration and concert.
"We wanted to have a large and strong and visible action over the course of a number of days," said Marc Rodrigues, with the Student Farmworker Alliance, a group that is participating in the event. Tampa was chosen as the place to begin the march because it is the closest and biggest city near Lakeland.
He said the campaign to increase the price of tomatoes by a penny a pound began in 2001 and has largely been successful, with Publix being the exception among large grocers, food distributors and restaurants.
"I don't know why," Rodrigues said. "We would think that Publix, based here in Florida, would jump at this opportunity. It's baffling why they are not."
Publix officials could not immediately be reached for comment.