The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of Florida farmworkers, led the march with the assistance of Columbus-area church leaders, students, and Ohio Fair Food. The March 9 event was part of a ten-day, ten-city campaign dubbed the “Now is the Time Tour.”
As part of its demand for dignity in the fields, CIW has set out to pressure corporate giants to support a penny-per-pound pay increase for tomato pickers, back up a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and sexual harassment, and allow farmworkers to organize and work safely. CIW, so far, has been successful with a dozen large fast-food and grocery corporations in its Fair Food program. The latest to sign on was Walmart in January.
CIW, similar to the work of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), is looking to address decades-old farm labor abuses at the heart of the nation's trillion-dollar food industry. FLOC, in recent years, has concentrated much of its efforts in the tobacco fields of the south. CIW’s membership now numbers 5,000 farmworkers, many who were born in México, Guatemala, and Haiti.
While FLOC has turned to boycotts in its efforts to organize migrant farmworkers and pressure large employers such as Campbell’s Soup, Mt. Olive Pickle, and RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, CIW and its supporters have stopped short of that tactic so far with Wendy’s.
“The pressure on Wendy’s will only escalate from here, especially with the Boot the Braids campaign gathering momentum,” said Rubén Castilla Herrera of Ohio Fair Food, a group consisting of students, farmworkers, people of faith, and organized labor.
Ohio State University has a Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) chapter, which is meeting with university administrators, putting pressure on them to end existing contracts with Wendy’s. For example, the OSU chapter wants administrators to close a small Wendy’s restaurant located at the Wexner Medical Center on campus. Other campus SFA chapters across the country are staging similar “Boot the Braids” efforts, a reference to the braids worn by the Wendy’s mascot, which is modeled after the daughter of the fast-food chain’s late founder, Dave Thomas. There are 20 U.S. universities with a Wendy’s.
“Wendy’s can no longer turn its back on a program that is concretely improving thousands of farm workers' lives and setting the international gold standard for business supply chain ethics,” said Santiago Pérez, a farmworker and CIW member.
A CIW theater troupe even performed a play at the March rally. Entitled “Lo Bueno… y Lo Horrible,” the play is designed to provide a public framework for understanding the differences between humane working conditions on Fair Food Program farms and those found on farms outside the program—including the provision of shade and sufficient drinking water.
CIW contends that companies like Wendy’s play a role in encouraging poor conditions in the fields and prolong farmworker poverty by turning a blind eye to the situation. The farm worker organizing group wants such corporate giants to use their high-volume purchasing power to provide hope for higher wages by agreeing to pay the penny-per-pound increase. One other potential CIW target is the Ohio-based Kroger grocery chain.
Fair Food supporters contend the lack of commitment by Wendy’s to their program makes it look as if the company is part of the problem, where huge companies use their size to demand lower prices thereby encouraging falling farm-worker wages.
Ohio Fair Food staged its own march and protest rally last fall, when 50 of its members gathered in the rain outside a Wendy’s restaurant just south of the Ohio State University campus. According to the group, Wendy’s is the only one of the five largest fast food corporations in the country not participating in the Fair Food program.
Supporters staged another protest in mid-December outside Wendy’s new flagship restaurant near its suburban Columbus headquarters. While the fast-food chain celebrated that grand opening, about 100 faith leaders and concerned consumers picketed outside with a Florida tomato picker who had traveled to Ohio for the protest.
Herrera called it “very ironic and interesting” that current Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick was Taco Bell’s CEO when CIW’s first Fair Food agreement was signed several years ago with Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company.
“The Boot the Braids campaign — in which students seek to cut university contracts with Wendy’s — highlights that irony and should serve as a cautionary reminder to Emil Brolick as he certainly remembers well the Boot the Bell campaign, in which 25 schools and universities successfully removed Taco Bell from their campuses while Brolick helmed the corporation,” he said.
“Mr. Emil Brolick, we are here to invite you to finish what you helped start!” Rev. Noelle Damico of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative declared at the rally.
Many faith leaders see the farm worker fight as a human-rights issue, so they’re backing the effort and encouraging their congregations to do the same.
“As Ohioans, consumers, and people of faith and conscience, we call on Wendy’s to delay no longer in joining its fast-food peers in the existing solution farmworkers themselves designed to root out abuses in the fields,” said Rev. Tim Ahrens of First Congregational Church of Columbus. “Now is the time for Wendy's to participate in creating a twenty-first century food industry where farm workers are treated as human beings and their rights are not only protected, but valued.”
“The issue of the rights of farmworkers lies at the intersection of many issues: workers’ rights, women’s rights, food justice, economic and trade issues, on and on,” added Herrera. “It could also be called farmworker rights. But many workers often talk about this being, at its core, an issue about one’s humanity and dignity. Something about “derechos humanos” seems to speak to that. But beyond this, we're talking about justice, dignity, freedom, liberty, respect. Human rights become the umbrella for all this.”
Herrera also explained the fight as one of “food justice.” Making consumers aware of what’s going on, he stated, is the key to winning the battle.
“Those beautiful fruits and vegetables you see as you walk into a grocery store just didn't get there by themselves,” he said. “At the beginning of the food chain, a human hand picked them. That hand historically has mostly been the hands of people of color, poor people. And most likely, there is an injustice for those that pick these products. So we have a responsibility as consumers who buy and eat these products to know about these injustices but also to use our power to change what is happening in the field.”
But the hamburger chain has countered the campaign with an explanation on its website. Wendy’s claims it is “being targeted” by CIW and “its allies at other activist organizations.”
“CIW is demanding an added fee on top of the price we pay our suppliers. However, because of our high standards, we already pay a premium to our Florida tomato suppliers,” the company stated on its website. “We believe it’s inappropriate to demand that one company pay another company’s employees. America doesn’t work that way.”
The Dublin, Ohio-based fast-food chain contends that all of the Florida tomatoes purchased by its supply chain cooperative come from suppliers who already participate in the Fair Food Program.
“Our responsibility to Wendy’s customers is to negotiate directly with our suppliers – not third-party organizations—to ensure our product specifications are met at a competitive price,” the Wendy’s website stated. “If our suppliers incur additional labor costs, we would expect them to pass them on to us over time. Wendy’s supports ongoing efforts by Florida tomato growers to improve working conditions for their workers.”
But Herrera contended that’s not how the Fair Food program is set up to work. He stated it requires participating buyers to pay a Fair Food Premium for purchases of Florida tomatoes. That premium, similar to any fair trade premium, is not paid by the buyer directly to the workers, but is in fact built into the final price of tomatoes, on the invoice, paid to participating growers.
“The buyers simply pay for their tomatoes as they always have, only now with a small premium,” Herrera said. “The accounting and distribution of the penny-per-pound funds are handled by the growers, who pay workers in the form of a bonus on their regular paycheck. Wendy’s would not make any payments to any employees of other companies.”