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Farmworker pay dispute sprouts up for Publix in NC

Grocery stores don't tend to hire the workers who pick the crops that supply produce to their shelves. That would seem to suggest that they should be insulated from the middle of contract disputes between field workers and the farms they work for. But as recent activities in North Carolina reflect, that may not always be the case.

Publix is a national chain that is expanding its presence in North Carolina. And it's on the basis of that move that members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers recently brought their demands for a pay raise to the state. They mounted a protest earlier this month in Cary and attempted to present a letter of labor demands, but Publix officials refused to accept it.

The CIW is a Florida-based organization that is trying to press Publix to get behind the so-called Fair Food Program. That's a partnership of farmers, workers and grocery retailers dedicated to improving wages and conditions for field employees. Fourteen big corporations, including Wal-mart, participate now and the CIW wants Publix to get on board.

Chief among the demands made during the recent protest was that Publix pay a penny per pound more than it does now for the tomatoes it sells. The group says that money would double wages for workers.

Publix officials say they're sensitive to the goals of the CIW and that they hold suppliers to a high standard to ensure workers' rights are protected. They also say they are not against paying the price the CIW is asking for, if that's what suppliers charge. But they say they don't employ the CIW and that it would be wrong to get into the middle of things.

What these events reflect is that doing business can involve chains of entities. Even if one link in the chain is separated from the others by a good distance, legal disputes that demand attention can be felt from one end to the other.

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