Faculty and students stand firm


Maps, piles of paper and project debris flew after Boise State facilities planner Dean Gunderson packed his belongings and said good-bye, days after Boise State faculty voiced opposition to the controversial Taco Bell contract.

Gunderson's resignation has to do with the fact that he won't eat at Taco Bell. And he's not afraid to express his opposition to the fast food franchise or the renaming of Boise State's Pavilion to Taco Bell Arena. So that's what he did--via the university's e-mail system. After his e-mail circulated around campus and eventually to the wrong people, Gunderson's superiors reminded him that the university renews his contract on a year-to-year basis and that if his contract wasn't renewed, it would have nothing to do with tacos.

So Gunderson resigned for moral reasons: He has a beef with Taco Bell Arena and won't stand for the exploitation watchdog organizations say Taco Bell's tomato growers subject their workers to. And he's not alone.

Faculty members gave Taco Bell the symbolic boot and students even bought the T-shirt (keep your eyes peeled for tees sporting a bronco bucking the Bell).

Boise State Faculty Senate members overwhelmingly approved a resolution Oct. 26 calling for the termination of a 15-year, $4 million contract between Taco Bell and Boise State and a reinstatement of the Pavilion name to the university's basketball arena. The measure passed with a 17-2 vote and called on the university to remove all Taco Bell logos on campus.

The State Board of Education approved the contract that is slated to put some cash in students' pockets and corporate logos on Bronco buildings. The contract includes the Pavilion name change, cash, in-kind contributions and an annual payment of $6,300 to establish a "Taco Bell Scholarship."

"The University sold off a piece of our campus for a few million dollars," says Arielle Anderson, Idaho Progressive Student Alliance president. "It's simply not worth it."

University spokesperson Frank Zang says the contract offers a win-win deal for the cash-strapped university, a sports arena facing tough competition from area venues and a company with historic sponsorship ties to Bronco sports. But some students and faculty say the taco giant famous for its value menu doesn't add much value to the university.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) claims Florida tomato pickers who supply produce to Taco Bell must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $50. Lucas Benitez, a farmworker and CIW advocate said through an interpreter that field laborers work ten to 12 hours a day with no benefits. They often work six days a week. Sometimes growers withhold wages, according to the Student/Farmworker Alliance. And a September 2003 National Geographic report cited cases of indentured servitude, workers who were bought and sold and instances of what the magazine called 21st century slavery among Florida farmworkers.

An un-amended version of the Senate resolution cited Taco Bell's poor record of human rights, exploitation and the slave-like working conditions of farm workers. Faculty may introduce a statement that further details their disagreement with the contract at a Nov. 9 meeting.

"It is an embarrassment and mark of shame on the good name of Boise State University that we have decided to ignore the growing tide of support for human rights and have thrown our lot in with Taco Bell on the side of corporate exploitation of farm workers," social work professor William H. Whitake told his colleagues.

But a deal's a deal, administrators say, and Taco Bell Arena stays.

The State Board of Education approved the contract in June in accordance with state policy, Zang says, adding, "We intend to honor it."

What the university intends to do with the faculty resolution "remains to be seen," Zang says. Legal interpretation would have to hash out the ramifications of a broken contract between Taco Bell and Boise State.

"We have not come to that stage and we may never," Zang says.

Critics of Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum! Brands, say Boise State can walk away from the contract and send a strong message to corporations that consumers will not stand for worker exploitation and that fair wages can be profitable.

Student senators recently introduced a resolution that voiced disagreement with the contract and the renaming of the Pavilion. That measure was tabled in committee but senators plan to reintroduce a similar version of that resolution, says Belle Antchekov, ASBSU At-Large Senator.

"We need to show that we are the rising star of the nation and show that we are a rising star for human rights."

Some students are miffed that the Pavilion became Taco Bell Arena without their input. But others say tacos and Broncos make a fine mix in light of dwindling state appropriations for higher education.

"That's an extra $4 million. I have to believe it's going to do some good," says Amy Robbins, a sophomore English major.

Joe Guarino, one of two faculty members to vote against the resolution, says he cast his nay vote because the sentiments of faculty he contacted fell across the continuum.

"Some people felt it was a bit of an overkill--that we were going maybe a little too far," he says.

Schools including Notre Dame have refused or canceled Taco Bell sponsorships. Students at Portland State, Central Michigan, UCLA, Grand Valley State, University of Florida and a host of other universities have disputed Taco Bell contacts or put pressure on Florida tomato growers to change their labor practices. Students recently went on a hunger strike at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, in protest of the exploitation of tomato harvesters and consumers have joined a nationwide boycott in protest of Taco Bell, according to CIW. Students say Taco Bell Arena puts Boise State in a camp they don't want to stand.

CIW asked Taco Bell to contribute to an increase in farmworker wages by paying its suppliers an additional penny per pound for tomatoes. They also asked Taco Bell to develop a code of conduct and discuss solutions to the problems faced by Florida farmworkers.

Taco Bell officials claim they agreed to pay up and sent CIW a check in the amount of $110,000--what the company calls the equivalent of a penny a pound for every pound of Florida tomatoes purchased in 2003.

Sally George, a Taco Bell spokesperson, says the company has tried to negotiate with the CIW but the organization returned the check.

The money was returned because there was no way CIW could reimburse the appropriate workers and because the Coalition didn't know if $110,000 was the correct reimbursement amount because Taco Bell had not opened its books to CIW, says Brigitte Gynther, of the Student/Farmworker Alliance.

George says Boise franchises do not buy Florida tomatoes and that Taco Bell is one of the smallest purchasers of Florida tomatoes and doesn't have the clout to change working conditions.

So why should a bunch of Boise State students and professors care about a few Taco Bell logos on their school's basketball court? For some, it's a matter of basic human rights. For some, it's a matter of respect and dignity.

Boise State Spanish professor María Alicia Garza calls that $4 million "dirty money" and says many students with Hispanic and farmworking roots oppose the Taco Bell contract out of solidarity with those who work the Florida fields. The sweatshop conditions CIW says Florida tomato growers subject their workers to--many of whom are of are of Hispanic decent--devalue Hispanics and their work. Some say Taco Bell Arena devalues the university's Hispanic students.

Garza says that when students invite relatives to watch them graduate in a building named after a company associated with racial stereotypes, the commencement ceremony loses a lot of meaning.

Students point to Taco Bell advertising that links a Chihuahua with Mexican culture. Then Taco Bell tells consumers to, "Run for the border."

"It's not funny to me," Ambar Beltran says of the commercials. The international business and Spanish major says Taco Bell advertising stirs up negative images of Hispanic culture. That "Run for the border" campaign doesn't have critics thinking about tacos. Beltran says it stands as just another insensitive exhibit in Taco Bell's history of cultural stereotyping.

"Families have to go to the U.S. because they have to feed their families, not because they want to."

So Beltran won't apply for a Taco Bell scholarship. And international eyes are on Taco Bell business deals.

Recent Boise State speaker and past President of Ireland Mary Robinson told Yum! Brands, "You are profiting by exploitation and you have the power to change what is happening."

Dean Gunderson's now infamous e-mail lauded Robinson's comments and jolted the taco giant, " ... for its continued business relationships with farms that routinely violate International Human Rights standards of conduct."

Plus, Gunderson says, the Bell's tacos taste bad.