DENVER-Perhaps you saw the signature Wendy’s red braids worn by a group of bikers riding through downtown Denver this past weekend chanting and carrying signs that read, “RESPECT FARM WORKER RIGHTS.” Local food justice organizations in alliance with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) of Florida want hold-out Wendy’s food chain to sign onto the Fair Food Agreement (FFA) outlined by the farmworker’s rights group. The CIW of Florida-a worker led movement-is calling for improved working conditions in the fields. They say that since 40% of tomatoes imported to the southwestern United States in the winter months come from Florida, that area consumers should pay attention.
The farm worker rights organization has been in existence since the early 90’s but it was the work that began in 2001 for corporation support of the Fair Food Agreement that began paying off in 2005 with the signing of Taco Bell. The Fair Food Agreement involves the many elements relevant to the challenges farm workers face in the industry including safety, wages, and other standards. The wage element requires buyers to pay a penny per pound bonus to farm workers in addition to their per-piece wage, thereby bringing many tomato pickers up to minimum wage levels.
The safety element though is what is respected globally by those who monitor worker conditions such as the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights. The Fair Food Program’s Code of Conduct holds to zero tolerance for forced labor or sexual assault-two problems pervasive in the industry which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been able to reduce. The CIW also has been able to win the right for employer paid education sessions for new farm workers, the development of complaint resolution mechanisms, and health and safety committees. These processes are all subject to ongoing auditing.
The CIW stays in the streets calling for more corporations who receive Florida tomatoes to sign on. Last year hundreds of nationwide supporters marched from Ft. Myers, Florida to the headquarters of Publix grocery chain in Lakeland, Florida-a distance of 200 miles. The event-dubbed The New Day-specifically targeted the Publix grocery chain whose corporate office is in Lakeland, yet Publix has yet to sign on.
Earlier this year, a similar number marched in Cleveland, Ohio to Wendy’s headquarters. Although Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick was the head of Taco Bell at the time of the corporation’s signing onto the FFA in 2005, Wendy’s refuses to sign the agreement under his same management.
Biker Robert McGoey, a member of Denver Fair Food who participated in the Denver event remembers back to 2001 when Brolick was head of Taco Bell, “The campaign for Fair Food started in 2001 with a boycott of Taco Bell. That’s when I first got involved. The Taco Bell boycott was successful in 2005. Taco Bell became the first company to sign the Fair Food Agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. After that in pretty rapid succession, companies like Mcdonalds, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Sudexo, Aramark, Trader Joes, a lot of other companies [joined]. There’s a total of 12 companies including the four major fast food companies plus Chipotle have all signed the Fair Food Agreement. Wendy’s is the only hold-out that hasn’t signed an agreement with the CIW so that’s why we’re out here today; to make sure that all the major fast food companies do join this important program that’s already improving the wages and working conditions for farm workers in Florida.”
John Knudson, an intern with Denver Fair Food and Denver Food Rescue, also participated in the 200-mile New Day walk in Florida as well as today’s protest, “We’ve taken most of what we learned from the CIW in Florida and are trying to implement that here [in Denver]. We’ve made our own logo in solidarity with their logo of the sun. We have our sun and a tomato to represent The New Day for tomato workers. We want [people] to know that it’s not just people in Immokalee, Florida who care about these issues, but that it’s people all across the entire United States who recognize the problems in one local area and that we’re not going to stop until we’ve enacted some change-until they sign on because it’s really only a matter of time.”
The bikers rode from the Capitol in downtown Denver to the Wendy’s at 201 E. 6th Ave. Wendy’s manager who identified herself as only “Emily” instructed the bikers as they attempted to enter the restaurant that they would need to leave their braids and flags outside of the restaurant and then they would be able to speak to the manager. After having done so, they still were refused entry into the restaurant upon a second attempt to deliver a letter to management. The letter read in part:
As a Wendy’s consumer and supporter of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ groundbreaking Fair Food Program, I urge Wendy’s to join with the CIW and the Florida tomato industry as they work to eliminate the forced labor, poverty wages and other human rights abuses historically faced by Florida farm workers who harvest your tomatoes.
Wendy’s has responded to consumers’ calls to join the Fair Food Program by saying “[W]e pay a premium to our tomato suppliers in Florida, and expect them to take care of their employees. All of our Florida tomato suppliers participate in the Fair Food Program.”
The truth is, whatever premium Wendy’s may be paying in not the Fair Food Premium, it is not being monitored by the Fair Foods Standards Council, and it is not going to address farmworkers’ grinding poverty. Wendy’s statement that the suppliers belong to the Fair Food Program is both unverifiable and meaningless because Wendy’s, unlike its competitors in the Fair Food Program, does not have to, and does not, tell anhone who its tomato suppliers are. Nor does Wendy’s have to suspend its purchases from any participating grower found out of compliance with the Fair Food Code of Conduct. These are the dual linchpins that give the Program its teeth, and Wendy’s simply is not doing its part.
Fatima Estrada Rascon was a part of the group who attempted to deliver the letter to Wendy’s management to the 6th Ave restaurant and later to the Wendy’s at 515 S. Broadway where the same manager refused to speak to the group. Estrada Rascon gave her reaction to Wendy’s position, “First management said that they would speak to us if we removed our braids and put down our signs and then when we did, they still wouldn’t talk to us. The idea is that we thought it was going to be a quick campaign just because they’re the last fast food company that needs to sign on to the fair food program. Emil Brolick has been putting up a little bit of a fight which has been making the campaign extend a little longer. So right now [the CIW] kicked off the Boot the Braids campaign where they’re going to try to get Wendy’s off college campuses. And right now what we’re trying to do here is show support for what folks are doing in Immokalee, Florida and also what people with Wendy’s on their colleges campuses are doing and build community around the fair food program here.”
Although Wendy’s does not hold restaurants in Denver area college campuses, the students expressed solidarity with students on other college campuses who have joined in the Boot the Braids campaign.
Refufia Gaintan/The Nation Report