Judge to decide details of farmworkers' march in Palm Beach

AP News
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Posted: Mar 09, 2016 8:57 PM

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A farmworkers coalition will march through the wealthy Town of Palm Beach near the home of a billionaire fast-food executive, but a federal judge will decide how loud the demonstration will be and where it will be held.

Attorneys for the Coalition of Immokalee (ih-MAHK'-ah-lee) Workers, which represents about 40,000 workers, and the town argued Wednesday before District Judge Robin Rosenberg over the group's scheduled march Saturday near the home of Wendy's chairman Norman Peltz. The coalition is on a five-city tour protesting Wendy's refusal to pay a penny-per-pound fee for its tomatoes to supplement some farmworkers' wages.

Coalition lawyer Jean Kim argued that Palm Beach's ordinances violate the group's First Amendment rights by strictly limiting noise levels and banning them from marching in the street. The town wants to limit the march to 64 decibels — about the level of two men talking — and keep the expected 500 marchers on the sidewalk. The group would be allowed to be louder at a rally that will follow in a city park.

Kim said street marches have played an important role in the nation's history, pointing to the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 march through Washington that ended with his "I Have a Dream" speech. She pointed out there has not been a march in Palm Beach since 1990, when the Ku Klux Klan successfully sued the town to hold a march there.

"Palm Beach does not want people demonstrating on its streets. Palm Beach cannot take a pass on the First Amendment. If the Klan gets to march on the streets of Palm Beach, the (coalition) should get to march on its streets," she said.

Attorney Margaret Cooper, who represented the town, argued that the town can limit noise levels to preserve the peace of its residents and visitors and can keep the marchers on the sidewalk to keep the roads and the main bridge into town clear for motorists and emergency vehicles. She said the town has "done everything it can to let them march," but the coalition wants to set the rules.

"There is no compromise. The issue is whether they can dictate to the town," Cooper said.

Rosenberg is expected to rule Thursday.

Of the 590 Florida cities, towns and unincorporated areas with at least 1,000 households that the U.S Census Bureau tracks, Palm Beach is 10th in median household income at $105,700 and has a year-round population of about 8,700 that swells in winter. Current and former residents and property owners include the Kennedy family, Donald Trump, commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and entertainers Jimmy Buffett, John Lennon and Rod Stewart.

Immokalee, the southwest Florida farming town about 100 miles from Palm Beach where the coalition is based, is 575th, with a median household income of $25,725.

The coalition has used demonstrations and sometimes consumer boycotts against the five largest fast-food companies — Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway and Taco Bell — to pressure them into joining its "fair food program." All but Wendy's eventually joined. The coalition announced a boycott against Wendy's last week.

Participating companies pay the extra penny-per-pound to their tomato growers to supplement field worker wages in Florida and six other states: Georgia, the Carolinas, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey.

Tomato harvesters make an average of about $10,000 during the six-month season, getting paid 50 cents for every 32-pound basket they fill. The coalition says the program can add $20 to $150 per week to their checks.

Peltz, a 73-year-old investor, has a net worth of $1.35 billion and is the 423rd richest American, according to Forbes Magazine. One of his companies, Triarc, bought Wendy's in 2008 for $2.3 billion and he became chairman. The company has said the farmworkers are not Wendy's employees and it doesn't feel it is appropriate to pay another company's workers.