Media round-up! The Nation, Civil Eats turn spotlight on Fair Food…

Fair Food allies march with farmworkers in New York to the office of Wendy's Board Chairman, Nelson Peltz

Fair Food allies march with farmworkers in New York to the office of Wendy’s Board Chairman, Nelson Peltz last month.

The Nation: “If the Coalition’s track record is any indication, Peltz had better get to the negotiating table…”

If the first month of the 2015-16 agricultural season was any indication, the Fair Food Program is in for a big year ahead.  From the recognition of the Fair Food Standards Council’s Executive Director, Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, with the prestigious Purpose Prize, to the high praise garnered by the FFP at the United Nations in Geneva, to an abundance of colorful, lively protests from New York to Miami, November was a month to remember in the movement for Fair Food.  

As a reflection of that momentum, it’s time again for a quick media round-up, and today we wanted to highlight two strong, thoughtful articles from The Nation and Civil Eats, respectively.

We’ll start off with The Nation, which used the Campaign for Fair Food’s recent focus on Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz as a prism for an extensive, well-researched reflection on the movement.  Here are just a few excerpts from the article, which came out in the wake of the Fair Food Nation’s march through the streets of New York last month (Please note: it is well worth your while to read the whole piece!):

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In New York, Farmworkers Rally for 1 Cent of Dignity

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has won battles with McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, and Taco Bell. Is Wendy’s next?

By Daniel Moattar

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Nelson Peltz takes his morning coffee in a mug marked “Cash Is King.” He’s worth a hair under $2 billion—he spent a quarter-million of them on VIP treatment at the second inauguration of George W. Bush. He calls himself an “activist investor,” and his firm, Trian Partners, is known for its deep involvement with the companies it buys. “I don’t know if just making money,” he once remarked, “is a great achievement.”

He doesn’t want to pay another cent for his tomatoes.

Since 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker-based movement, has struggled for workers’ rights and dignity in Florida’s tomato fields. In the last 10 years, they’ve racked up a remarkable string of successes with big buyers in the food industry, from fast-food conglomerates to national retail fronts. They rallied Monday outside Trian’s corporate headquarters to ask its boss for a different kind of activism: support for a one-cent surcharge on each pound of tomatoes bought by Wendy’s, where Peltz—its former CEO—chairs the Board of Directors.

Through the Coalition’s Fair Food Program (FFP), the additional penny paid per pound goes directly to tomato pickers; according to the CIW, the program has paid $20 million to workers since its establishment in 2011. The FFP has also established a binding code of conduct with participating retailers, which requires them to buy from tomato growers in good standing with the coalition. Labor practices are monitored by a third-party council.

“If they had any smarts at all, they’d sign on to the Fair Food Program like anyone else. The costs are negligible,” says Bruce Nissen, director of research at Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research and Studies. “One by one by one, all the major food purveyors, these fast-food chains, and now institutional food service, are joining the program. Most CEOs, most leadership in these organizations, they’ll express opposition at the beginning, but by the time the campaign has been going on for a certain while, they just start to make a rational calculation: What are the costs, what are the benefits?”

For the workers of Immokalee, the benefits beggar belief. Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a farmworker and 16-year member of the coalition, estimates that more than 90 percent of Florida pickers now benefit from its efforts. In other industries, those improvements might have come from a collective-bargaining drive—but farmworkers are legally ineligible for conventional union protections, thanks to the farm lobby’s political clout.

Through CIW’s alternative tactics, including consumer boycotts of companies who refuse to sign on to the FFP, Florida pickers now work more humane hours, with access to shade and clean water in the fields. Above all, they can file grievances against crew bosses and employers responsible for abusive work conditions, including sexual harassment, once a standard feature of the job. In the past, says Reyes Chavez, complainants would be fired on the spot.

Wendy’s is the fifth-largest fast-food chain in the country; numbers one through four signed on to the compact years ago. The coalition has won workers’-rights battles with, among others, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, and Taco Bell—the latter agreement was struck with the whole of Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s behemoth parent company. Even Walmart, the famously intractable provider of always-low wages, readily signed on to the FFP in April of last year.

As the world’s largest retailer, Walmart’s agreement helped take the CIW past Florida for the first time in its history. This year, the Coalition is expanding into five states where agricultural laborers still encounter the brand of brutality they once did throughout Florida: Georgia, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. This is organizing at its best: making a straightforward premise—basic dignities for farmworkers—inseparable from a demand as simple as fractionally higher costs for tomatoes.

The CIW turned its attention to Wendy’s three years ago, and its leadership has been as unresponsive throughout as it was at Monday’s event. Wendy’s claims it already pays higher prices for better tomatoes, but the CIW maintains that higher-quality fruit doesn’t necessarily mean better treatment of pickers.

“The status quo has been to always push prices down and maximize profit in the supply chain,” says Reyes Chavez. “When that’s the only interest that you’re pursuing, the way to do it is to pressure your suppliers for lower costs. Trian Partners has played key roles in the development of the image of Wendy’s. They’re driving improvements in how Wendy’s does in the public eye. I think they can do exactly the same thing to improve the brand—to add the value of social responsibility.”

That’s what brought Reyes Chavez and about 100 others to Park Avenue on Monday night…

Moattar goes on to describe the Big Apple action itself, including the powerful moment when consumers paused across the street from Nelson Peltz’s “activist investment firm,” Trian Partners, and pointed up at the towering glass and marble offices, demanding action from the Wendy’s leadership within.  With that, Moattar asks:  What’s next?

WHAT’S NEXT FOR WENDY’S?

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If the Coalition’s track record is any indication, Peltz had better get to the negotiating table. The Fair Food Program started with the fast-food sector’s biggest tomato buyers, and it hasn’t shied from challenges since. It has succeeded with larger enterprises than Wendy’s and deeper opposition than Wendy’s is likely to mount.

“They have never wavered from their commitment to building worker organization in the Immokalee community and in the fields,” says Nissen. “They’re in it for the long haul. There aren’t any flashy organizers being parachuted in. These are people who live there in Immokalee and have stayed there for decades continuing to build that organization.”

Fourteen corporations are already operating within the Fair Food Program, and the CIW owes much of that success to the market savvy of the approach it’s now leveling at Wendy’s. By going directly to large buyers, and by levying allies in the religious community and on university campuses, the Coalition has put highly public pressure on corporations like Wendy’s and its predecessors in the FFP—which, on top of Walmart, recently added Chipotle to its list of signatories.

That its demand of one penny per pound of tomatoes yields such radical improvement in fields highlights the poverty of workers’ pre-CIW treatment. “We wouldn’t have permission to go to the bathroom, or to take a break or a sip of water,” says Nely Rodriguez, a Coalition staff member and organizer who helped lead Monday’s rally. “We were in the fields from 7 am to 8 pm, working long hours in the sun without any access to shade or to bathrooms. What we’re asking for is for Wendy’s to use its market power not just to demand tomatoes at low prices and high quality, but to require non-participating farms to respect the human rights of farmworkers… so that we can have higher wages, better working protections, and basic respect in the fields…”

When you are able, make sure to check out the rest of The Nation’s article on the Fair Food Program’s remarkable impacts in U.S. agriculture — and the immense power of the thousands of consumer allies who have partnered with farmworkers to bring about that change.

Meanwhile, over at Civil Eats, award-winning author Eric Schlosser sat down with Anna Lappè — a champion of the food movement in her own right — for an interview about “the people behind food,” covering the victories of food chain workers like Florida’s farmworkers as well as the challenges that remain.  

Here are some of the highlights:

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You’ve spent a lot of your career focused on labor issues. Is there one front where you feel like food workers are winning? Alternately, where are they losing?  

I got involved with labor issues in the food system in 1994—that was my introduction to America’s industrialized food system. That was when I followed workers through the strawberry harvest in California. It was my interest in labor issues that lead me to writeFast Food Nation a few years later.

I’m most encouraged by the victories of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida. Because as bad as things were in the strawberry fields of California, what’s been going on in Florida is as bad as anywhere in the United States in terms of the low wages and working conditions, including sexual harassment, and even slavery, in Central Florida.

The ability of this one small farmworker organization to force the food corporations of the U.S. to adopt an enforceable code of conduct has been amazing and encouraging to watch. The CIW is incredibly disciplined, sticks to the facts, and is willing to tolerate defeat after defeat in order to eventually gain victory.

What I am most discouraged about is the exploitation of meat packing workers. I’ve seen no improvement whatsoever in the years since Fast Food Nation came out: the job is much more dangerous. The crackdown on immigrants in the U.S. has only made it more difficult and has only increased the risks for those immigrant workers who want to speak out and protest those conditions.

Why do you think the CIW has been effective in securing victories when other farmworker organizing has not?

I think the CIW recognized how the power structure has changed in American agriculture in the last 30 years. In the era of Cesar Chavez, there was effective organizing against the growers, but in the 21st Century, the real power lies with the multinational corporations which are purchasing these commodities. The growers are increasingly trapped and squeezed by this system as well.

The thing about a right-to-work state like Florida is that it doesn’t have a great tradition of labor unions; the CIW was in a very difficult position in trying to figure out how to help these poor workers. So instead of creating a union—which has become all the more difficult because of the large proportion of immigrant workers in agriculture and the fear that some of these immigrants have of being deported—the CIW decided to go after those with the greatest power: Burger King, McDonalds, Walmart. They have succeeded in a way that other worker groups and other industries can now emulate.

And that’s a wrap for this media round-up!  Stay tuned in the week ahead for some exciting new out of the Fair Food Program… 

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