A group of 70 Florida tomato pickers and supporters who went on a hunger strike to protest what they call unfair labor practices divided a loaf of bread in an Ash Wednesday service outside Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine, ending a 10-day fast.
Demonstrators had hoped Taco Bell would pressure growers to raise workers' wages and improve working conditions. Although the Mexican-style fast-food chain did not respond and locked its doors when the migrant workers, students and labor activists tried to deliver letters from supporters, the strikers said Wednesday they were not discouraged.
"The true goal was not to talk to Taco Bell," said Lucas Benitez, a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. The group decided to disband the protest, while still encouraging people to boycott Taco Bell.
Officials for the fast-food giant have declined to meet with protesters. A company spokeswoman has said the group's efforts are misdirected and that workers should take up the dispute with their Florida employers.
The hunger strike ended at the request of religious leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, who sent letters expressing concern over the strikers' health and pledging to spread news of the coalition's struggle to their congregations.
The farm workers, who earn about $7,500 annually, and their supporters began the drive back to Florida on Wednesday night.
Although demonstrators picketed around the clock during the protest that began Feb. 24, few workers in the busy office park seemed to know much about their cause.
"Maybe they ought to move, because I don't think anyone has noticed," said Megan Kirby, 22. "To be honest, I thought they were picketing the war."
Picketers do not believe their efforts were wasted.
"This [was] not a waste of time," said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, 25, a tomato picker from Immokalee, Fla. "The time that we work in the fields and [our employers] rob us is wasted time."
Chavez listed religious, student and labor organizations that have pledged their support, as well as colleges that are considering removing or have removed Taco Bell from their campuses, among them the University of San Francisco.
A university official said they took the coalition's protest into consideration, but that it was not the overriding factor behind their decision to remove Taco Bell from its campus last May.
Chavez and fellow workers believe it is only a matter of time before the corporation relents and intercedes on their behalf.
"When the number of [supporters] grows ... and Taco Bell's public face is affected, they will sit at the table with us," he said.