Wall Street High-Flyers: Having It Their Way at Burger King

Florida tomato pickers started a protest march last week at the Miami office of a New York investment bank. For good reason.

December 3, 2007

By Sam Pizzigati

Hundreds of migrant farmworkers marched through Miami this past Friday to protest a Florida tomato grower maneuver that will cut some tomato picker wages by 40 percent.

The growers are refusing to honor deals the state’s top farmworker group has cut with McDonald’s and Taco Bell to pay pickers a penny a pound more for the tomatoes they pick — over the course of workdays that often last 12 hours.

Tomato picker wagesFast-food chains just happen to be the biggest market for Florida’s tomatoes. But one fast-food giant — Burger King — has resisted the penny-per-pound wage increase, and that resistance, says food industry analyst Eric Schlosser, “has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.”

Why is Burger King so up in arms against upping farmworker wages a penny a pound?

Here’s a hint: The farmworkers started last week’s nine-mile protest march at the Miami office of Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment banking colossus whose top power suits will shortly be divvying up somewhere between $17 and $22 billion in annual bonuses.

How are Wall Street’s power suits making all those billions? They certainly, of course, don’t pick tomatoes — or even flip burgers. They flip companies. And that flipping, maybe more than any other single factor, is driving the battle over pennies currently raging in Florida’s tomato fields.

The flipping at Burger King, the nation’s second-largest fast-food chain, has been going on for some time now, ever since 1967 when Pillsbury bought the then 13-year-old Burger King  from the company’s two independent founders.

But the Burger King flipping wouldn’t become particularly frenetic until nearly two dozen years later. In 1989, Grand Met, a British company, bought out Pillsbury. Just eight years later, Grand Met merged with the Guinness beverage company to create a totally new corporation that became known as Diageo.

This new company knew something about selling beer, but next to nothing about burgers. By 2002, Burger King had become a basket case, with central headquarters and the chain’s franchisees at each others’ throats.

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