Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The King, a spy?

Eric Schlosser, the muckraking author of “Fast Food Nation,” blew the cover this morning off a clandestine operation that explains why so many chain executives take their martinis shaken, not stirred. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Schlosser, about whom I have my own secrets to reveal, disclosed that Burger King has been secretly infiltrating a labor-affiliated group in Florida. Not that the group’s members work for BK, mind you. They’re students who sympathize with the workers who pick the Florida tomatoes that might end up as a Whopper garnish. BK, apparently fearing some sort of tomato-field uprising, hired a veteran spook to go undercover as a college student willing to work for the Student/Farmworker Alliance, according to Schlosser.

The best-selling author and crackerjack journalist said he was told by an unnamed BK executive that the chain had for years employed a shadowy company called Diplomatic Tactical Services for what the source termed “security-related matters.” In March, Schlosser said, those matters extended to infiltrating the Alliance, which supports the mission of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. As we’ve often reported online, the CIW is pushing BK to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, as McDonald’s and the quick-service chains of Yum! Brands have agreed. The CIW says the money would be used to improve the wages and living conditions of tomato pickers. But BK has refused, citing concerns about the legality of paying part of a wage to workers whom it doesn’t actually employ.

Schlosser doesn’t say exactly what BK hoped to accomplish if, as he alleges, the company paid someone to spy on the Alliance. But he cites the situation as another reason why safeguards against corporate surveillance should be enacted by Congress, if not written into the Constitution.

Lest you write off Schlosser as someone who warns of monsters under the bed because it sells books, consider the other reports that have come to light about BK executives’ other dealings with the CIW. The Fort Myers, Fla., News-Press reported yesterday that the franchisor is investigating Steve Grover, head of the chain’s food safety and quality control functions, for slamming the CIW in blog postings that were written under the screen name of his daughter. “Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken,” BK spokeswoman Denise Wilson was quoted as saying. In the story, she stressed that Grover acted independently, without so much as sympathy from the home office. She did not deny that Grover had written the messages, which the News-Press characterized as “derogatory.”

Yet Schlosser’s account fails to answer the question of why BK would bother to infiltrate a student group that has probably never heard of Che Guevara or Cesar Chavez. At a time of runaway food costs, sky-high construction costs and a severe slowdown in consumer spending, do farm workers or youngsters working on their behalf really pose a significant threat, never mind one that triggers covert operations? Shouldn’t BK’s operatives be trying to turn Ronald McDonald, or maybe waterboarding that pig-tailed redhead from Dublin, Ohio? At the very least it should be eavesdropping on that cue-ball-headed guy who makes commercials for Jack in the Box.

And, of course, there are my personal qualms about Schlosser’s integrity. Many years ago, sometime between “Fast Food Nation” and his subsequent book, “Reefer Madness,” he called me while I was serving as editor of an NRN competitor. He was trying to track down the source for an expert’s assertion that I’d recounted in a column. I had the source material on an audiotape, a piece of pr-MP3 technology known as a “cassette.” It was a recording of a Technomic recording from COEX, and you couldn’t readily find material of that sort in those pre-YouTube days. So he begged to borrow it, swearing he’d return it ASAP. But, alas, I’m still waiting.

Perhaps I should slag him in a blog.

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