A Profile in Cowardice…

President Drake, OSU Administration take a stand against students, faculty, faith leaders, international labor rights experts and farmworkers to renew Wendy’s contract for three more years;

Administration waits until school year over, students safely at home, to announce decision;

Students call for Fair Food Nation to join national call-in action to President Drake’s office today!

Last Thursday, Amanda Ferguson, an OSU grad student and one of the student fasters this past March, received the following email from Jay Kassey, Senior Vice President for Administration and Planning at OSU: 

Dear Amanda,

Ohio State worked with Wendy’s actively for two years as it developed a new Code of Conduct. The code specifies measures put in place by Wendy’s to ensure that workers picking tomatoes are doing so under safe and appropriate conditions.

We are pleased that the code extends to all produce suppliers for Wendy’s restaurants and covers workers throughout the United States and Canada.

We will have the ability to verify adherence to the code with onsite inspections at any time of our choosing.

We have renewed the lease with Wendy’s for a term of three years.

Sincerely,

Jay Kasey
Senior Vice President, Administration and Planning

And just like that OSU students learned — via this terse and, quite frankly, astoundingly unsophisticated email — that OSU President Michael Drake and his administration have sided with Wendy’s disdain for human rights and renewed the fast-food giant’s lease to do business on OSU’s campus.

Despite the impassioned efforts of students like Amanda who sacrificed their own health to impress upon the Administration the urgency of the decision before them; despite the heartfelt support for the students’ efforts from countless consumers, and especially from faith leaders and the faith community, across the country; despite the professional, informed comparison of the Wendy’s code of conduct and the Fair Food Program penned expressly for the administrators’ consideration by international labor rights expert, Fordham Law School professor and former OSU faculty member, James Brudney (“Ohio State administrators should listen to concerns about Wendy’s”); and despite the patient explanations, born of personal experience, by farmworkers from Immokalee who met with OSU administrators to discuss the unprecedented transformation of labor conditions in the fields thanks to the FFP, and the inhumane treatment of farmworkers that is the norm in Mexico where Wendy’s buys its tomatoes today (“Hardship on Mexican farms, a bounty for U.S. tables,” Los Angeles Times), President Drake and his administration decided to throw their lot in with Wendy’s.

But before we dig more deeply into an analysis of OSU’s decision and Vice President Kasey’s email explaining it, we want to offer just a quick word on how that decidedly consequential news was announced.

Student fasters hold a public report following their meeting with OSU administrators in March of this year.

And that word is: Cowardly

It was a cowardly announcement.  Not only did the OSU administration choose to bury the news with a late-in-the-week release ahead of a three-day weekend, but they chose to do so only after the school year had ended and students had returned home for summer vacation.

In fact, according to emails between OSU and Wendy’s secured through a freedom of information request filed by the student fasters, it was OSU’s decision to extend the interim lease an additional two months (from four to six months), pushing its expiration, and the announcement of the administration’s decision on renewal, well beyond the end of the school calendar.  With no students in school to react and no press to cover their reaction, this had the effect of protecting the administration from protests, and from even having to justify its decision.

That is not how you announce a decision about which you are proud.  That is not how you release controversial news that you are confident can stand up to public scrutiny.  

However, that is how you announce news of which you are ashamed; news you can’t comfortably defend. 

And that alone should tell you all you need to know about the wisdom of the administration’s decision.

And now a closer look at the announcement…

But in case you’d like a bit more comprehensive analysis, let’s dive a little more deeply into the Senior Vice President’s email.  It’s short enough that we can break it down, paragraph by paragraph.

First paragraph:

Ohio State worked with Wendy’s actively for two years as it developed a new Code of Conduct. The code specifies measures put in place by Wendy’s to ensure that workers picking tomatoes are doing so under safe and appropriate conditions.

No it doesn’t.  Not as a matter of fact, and not as a matter of logic (as we will see in our analysis of the email’s second paragraph).

You can find our factual analysis of the Wendy’s code here (“A battle for the soul of social responsibility: Wendy’s new code of conduct is a prime example of the discredited standards-without-enforcement model of social responsibility”), but here below is a quick excerpt from that post :

… Just as our country has a tax code, Wendy’s has a code of conduct for its suppliers that establishes the rules — on everything from food safety to human rights and labor practices — with which it says its suppliers must comply in order to be “approved to provide goods, products, equipment, or services” to the hamburger giant.  

wendys_code_of_conduct

The cover page to Wendy’s new code of conduct.

Yet a deeper review of the code, which went into effect as of the first of this month, reveals that there is no reason to hope that Wendy’s suppliers will actually comply with those rules, or at least with those that are in any way inconvenient for them.  

Wishful thinking, it seems, is Wendy’s principal, perhaps sole, strategy for compliance. 

Time after time, the code uses the words “Wendy’s expects” or “suppliers are expected” where you would think the words “require” or “are required” would be used…

… Between all of its “expects” and “mays” and “likelies,” and its total lack of worker participation on any level, Wendy’s new code of conduct is a classic example of corporate-driven social responsibility.  That model is a proven failure, and when it fails, it not only steals workers’ dignity, it can take their freedom or their very lives. 

If you don’t believe us, here’s what international labor rights expert Professor Jim Brudney had to say on the subject of Wendy’s code:

… By contrast [with the Fair Food Program], the 2017 Wendy’s code for its suppliers—many operating in Mexico—is entirely voluntary. The document is filled with hortatory statements that carry no consequences for non-compliance: what Wendy’s “expects” of its suppliers (e.g. “our suppliers are expected to fairly compensate” their employees; “we expect our suppliers to provide a work environment free of discrimination and harassment”) and how Wendy’s thinks its suppliers “should” treat their workers (e.g. “our suppliers should not utilize” forced labor; “our suppliers should ensure all employees work in compliance with applicable laws and regulations”).  

The Wendy’s approach — a voluntary corporate code of conduct, backed by corporate self-monitoring — has for many years been dismissed as inadequate with respect to supply chain production.  Countless studies and reports—by human rights specialists, international organizations, and scholars—confirm that internal corporate monitoring effectively invites suppliers to engage in deceptive practices. These widespread practices include keeping double sets of books; concealing workplace hazards; scripting worker participation while chilling genuine worker input; and relying on top-down examination of documentary records rather than time-consuming investigation of working conditions on the shop floor or in the fields. Sadly, voluntary codes like the one promulgated by Wendy’s are too often little more than a sham. (read more)

Clearly, any claim that Wendy’s might make — or that the OSU administration might make, for that matter, now that they have hitched the university’s ethical wagon to Wendy’s — that the company’s new code can “ensure that workers picking tomatoes are doing so under safe and appropriate conditions” is at best sadly misleading, and at worst, an unvarnished lie.

Furthermore, the first paragraph makes one thing crystal clear for the historical record: OSU has no qualms whatsoever about participating in a process of drafting rules to protect human rights while entirely excluding the very humans whose rights are in question from that process.  In fact, that glaring oversight — captured so starkly in the first paragraph’s first sentence, “Ohio State worked with Wendy’s actively for two years as it developed a new Code of Conduct” — probably never even occurred to OSU administrators as they met with Wendy’s executives and blithely decided exactly what constituted sufficient protection for other humans’ fundamental rights.  

Second paragraph:

We are pleased that the code extends to all produce suppliers for Wendy’s restaurants and covers workers throughout the United States and Canada.

Wait, what?  Those two clauses — “the code extends to all produce suppliers for Wendy’s restaurants” and “(the code) covers workers throughout the United States and Canada” — are, quite simply, logically inconsistent.  Wendy’s freely admits that it buys tomatoes from produce suppliers in Mexico, and last we checked Mexico is not part of the United States or Canada.  

Workers at a Mexican produce farm wash their clothes by hand in an irrigation ditch during a day off from the fields. Photo LA Times.

Despite the second paragraph’s mangled logic, we have little choice but to take Vice President Kasey at his word and conclude that workers in Mexico are not, in fact, covered by Wendy’s code.  That means that OSU has renewed Wendy’s lease based on a code of conduct that the administration itself recognizes does not protect the interests of the very workers the administration promised to consider.

Third paragraph:

And this is where we lose all hope that the email was informed by any realistic, honest understanding of, or commitment to, effective social responsibility practices:

We will have the ability to verify adherence to the code with onsite inspections at any time of our choosing.

OSU administrators have, inexplicably, bet the house on their own ability to ferret out human rights violations on the farms where Wendy’s buys its tomatoes in Mexico through “onsite inspections at any time of our choosing.”  That idea bears repeating.  OSU has told its students not to worry about labor rights abuses behind the food they eat at the campus Wendy’s because:

We will have the ability to verify adherence to the code with onsite inspections at any time of our choosing.

What this sentence actually means is far from clear.  Is OSU planning to engage a third party auditor to visit Wendy’s farms in Mexico on its behalf?  If so, that would mean that President Drake and his administration are content to trust Mexican farmworkers’ lives to the woefully inadequate practice of occasional audits that are subject to all the deceptive practices described above by Professor Brudney in his comparison of the FFP and the Wendy’s code.  Audits that, at very best, provide an imperfect snapshot of conditions in the fields on the one day of the year that auditors are present, leaving OSU students to wonder what kind of abuse the workers who picked their tomatoes face on the other 364.

Or, even more disconcerting to ponder: Is the OSU administration planning on organizing its own monitoring visits to Wendy’s farms in Mexico?  However comical it might be to imagine a team of OSU administrators endeavoring to locate, navigate, and survive an unannounced visit to the farms where Wendy’s tomatoes are picked in Mexico, it is even more frustratingly absurd to think that President Drake and his administration would consider this a satisfactory solution to the documented, widespread, and extreme human rights violations in Mexico’s produce industry.  Real people’s lives are at stake; the fundamental dignity of real human beings hangs in the balance.   And the OSU administration’s best answer is “don’t worry, we’ll check in from time to time.”  

Do they really think their own students are that gullible, or are they themselves really that naive?  In other words, is this paragraph a demonstration of unbridled arrogance on the administration’s part, or does it reflect their own ignorance?  Either way, the weightlessness of this guarantee, compared to the gravity of the human rights violations it claims to prevent, reflects poorly, to say the least, on President Drake and his administration. 

Protesters march to protest the killing of 43 college students in Mexico in 2014. The killings remain unsolved.  The students were attending an agricultural teachers college.  Read our analysis, Fear and Fair Cannot Coexist, for more on this horrific story.

Of course, in case their inspections somehow fail to uncover violations, OSU administrators do have one ace-in-the-hole: the customary silence in Mexico’s fields when unimaginable human rights violations do occur, a silence Haitian peasants call the “silence of the graveyard” to describe their own lives during the darkest days of the Duvalier dictatorship.  

Thanks to the violent social crisis and virtual guarantee of impunity for violent criminals in Mexico today (Mexico was the second deadliest country in the world in 2016, second only to Syria), the decision to complain to a powerful boss or employer about abuse in the fields is all too often a question of life or death for impoverished and powerless workers.  As Professor Brudney writes, “How does the law protect worker voice in Mexican farm fields, where reports of violence and retaliation against such efforts are regrettably common?”  Combine that brutal reality with a press that — reasonably — fears stepping on the wrong toes in Mexico, and OSU administrators can be fairly certain that any human rights violations that their own monitoring efforts fail to turn up will go unreported and unremedied.

So where does that leave us?…

In terms of the email, there is nothing left but the coup de grace:

We have renewed the lease with Wendy’s for a term of three years.

Sincerely,
Jay Kasey
Senior Vice President, Administration and Planning

We do have one quibble with this last excerpt of the email: Sincerely?  Not really.  “Cynically” is more like it.  Or “Disdainfully,” perhaps.  Or even “Fearfully” might have been a more honest closing.  Fear of alienating a corporate neighbor.  Fear of taking a stand for fundamental human rights, despite the fact that more than a dozen corporations, dozens of universities, and tens of thousands of consumers had already blazed that path before OSU was faced with the decision.  Even fear of their own students, causing administrators to put off the announcement until students were safely back at home and unable to react.

So, while President Drake and his administration opt for business as usual with Wendy’s in Columbus, human rights violations will go on in the fields of Mexico, and they will go unchecked.  You can be as sure of that as you can of the sun coming up.  

And students at OSU will escalate their fight to cut the Wendy’s contract, and their fight will garner growing support from around the country.  That, too, is guaranteed by this decision.  

All of which could have been avoided if President Drake and his administration had employed a bit more logic and principle, and chosen to support real human rights and dignity in the university’s supply chain.  

Instead, students, faculty, faith leaders, human rights experts, and farmworkers are left with no option but to prepare for the battle that lies ahead in Columbus when school starts this fall.  Such a waste of all our time and effort, when we could be working together to strengthen and expand the Fair Food Program.  And such a slap in the face to workers in Mexico — and the hundreds of thousands of workers in U.S. fields who continue to be denied the protections of the FFP, thanks to the absence of companies like Wendy’s — whose collective human rights somehow weigh less in the OSU administrators’ scales than the feather that is the university’s relationship with Wendy’s.

And the battle begins today: OSU students launch a call to action!

School or no school, OSU student leaders will not allow this unconscionable decision to go unanswered.  From their respective corners of the country, OSU students and alumni leaders are calling for the Fair Food Nation today to join them in calling the offices of President Drake.  Here is their call to action:
Call OSU President Michael Drake TODAY at 614-292-2424 to condemn the OSU administration’s decision to renew the Wendy’s contract.  Here is a sample script: 

“President Drake, I’m calling because your administration has chosen to turn its back on its students, faculty, Columbus community, and farmworkers by renewing its contract with Wendy’s. With this decision, your administration demonstrates its blatant disregard for farmworkers’ basic human rights, instead actively working with Wendy’s to develop a meaningless Code of Conduct.  
 
Completely lacking in worker participation and enforcement mechanisms, Wendy’s code has been publicly and repeatedly discredited as a nothing more than a sham by farmworkers, students, and more recently, international labor law expert James Brudney — and yet, OSU has chosen to support that CSR model, one that is failing thousands upon thousands of farmworkers in Wendy’s supply chain even as we speak.  I am joining community members across the country in supporting students’ escalating efforts to remove Wendy’s from campus until you decide to stand on the right side of history regarding farmworkers’ human rights.”

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