Irvine Says No to Tent City at Taco Bell

Times Staff Writer

The Porta-Pottys are gone and their tent city is history, but 70 Florida tomato pickers, students and labor activists vowed Monday to continue picketing Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine indefinitely.

Citing public safety, Irvine police on Monday denied protesters' request to continue setting up overnight shelters on the sidewalk outside the fast-food chain's corporate offices for the remainder of their demonstration. Some group members have been on a hunger strike since the labor action began Feb. 24.

Demonstrators, who are speaking out against low wages, unpaid overtime and lack of health benefits from Florida companies selling tomatoes to Taco Bell, appealed unsuccessfully to Irvine Mayor Larry Agran to be allowed to camp on the sidewalks of the office park at Von Karman and Morse avenues.

Group members said Monday evening they will spend nights at a nearby church and return each morning with banners and placards.

"Our health is not going to be any worse off here than in the fields where there are chemicals and insecticides," said agricultural worker Antonio Gomez, who said he will continue fasting as long as his 24-year-old body can take it.

Taco Bell executives do not intend to speak with the workers, a corporate spokeswoman said Monday. She said the laborers should discuss their concerns directly with the growers.

The coalition from the Florida town of Immokalee has been planning the demonstration for months. The group wants Taco Bell to pressure growers to improve working conditions and to pay an extra cent for each pound of tomatoes it buys.

Laborers now earn between $7,000 and $7,500 a year, and a penny more per pound would raise wages barely to poverty level, said Lucas Benitez, of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Damara Luce, 28, of the nonprofit Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, said demonstrators believed they had applied for an indefinite permit to continue their protest around the clock, with tents and hunger strikers on sidewalks.

Irvine police said the group applied for a special-event permit that let them block off a portion of Von Karman for a rally Friday. Tents and portable bathrooms were permitted last week from midnight until 6 a.m. because they thought demonstrators would leave after the rally, Irvine Police Lt. Dave Mihalik said.

He said the city can no longer afford to take the safety risk.

"We can't violate other people's rights because [protesters] want additional rights not granted them," he said.

Benitez said they remain committed to get the food corporation's attention.

"This isn't just about getting better wages," he said. "We want to change the imbalance of power between the farm worker and the farmer."

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