Dear Wendy’s – In the summer of 1988 I worked in Lowell, Massachusetts painting houses. The pay was lousy, the heat oppressive, and the work was exhausting. Many nights I would collapse, fully clothed, on my mattress on the floor of the dingy, mouse-infested apartment I rented.
But before I hit the sack, there was one thing I usually looked forward to: your Superbar (now defunct). For about $3.00 I could get my fill of salad, fruit, Mexican food, and pasta.
And that’s the only reason I’m writing you today, Wendy’s. I have nostalgic feelings for your SuperBar, even though I now know it’s tainted. But I’m offering you a heads up anyway: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is coming for you, and you will lose.
That’s not a threat, it’s a statement of fact.
The CIW is the most effective, winningest anti-poverty group I know. It was founded in 1993 by a small group of farmworkers in little-known Immokalee, Florida. They had the audacity to believe that they could take on the state’s agriculture industry—once described by a federal prosecutor as “ground zero for modern slavery”—and fundamentally change the business.
The harsh opposition and backwards thinking that the workers needed to overcome was evident during a hunger strike in 1997, when the farmworkers’ single demand was a dialogue with the tomato growers. One grower told the CIW, “Let me put it to you like this—the tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.”
But ultimately, the farmworkers’ unity and savvy tactics led to most tomato growers in South Florida coming to the table and reforming their practices. Today, the CIW is internationally recognized for its wins in addressing social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence. But nothing epitomizes their work more than the Fair Food Program (FFP), which protects workers by creating real economic consequences for violations of human and labor rights.
And that brings us back to you, Wendy’s. The CIW announced a national Wendy’s boycott because you are the only major fast food corporation that has not signed onto the FFP—and that matters.
Under the FFP, corporations pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes in order to support better working conditions for farmworkers. They also agree to buy only from growers who sign a code of conduct—which forbids things like forced labor and sexual harassment—and is drafted by the workers themselves. There is worker-to-worker education on their new rights, a 24-hour hotline for complaints, and workers monitor their own workplaces. Plus, the Fair Food Standards Council conducts regular audits, investigates complaints, and monitors resolutions at the approximately 17 participating growers; these growers account for 90 percent of the $650 million in annual revenues in the Florida tomato industry.
When major violations occur and aren’t corrected, corporations stop buying from the offending growers, which means human rights and labor violations in the fields have real market consequences: respect for workers is rewarded, abuse leads to significant financial loss. That’s why the system works, plain and simple, and it’s why the New York Times described it as “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the U.S. The Obama Administration even awarded the FFP a Presidential Medal for “extraordinary efforts in combatting human trafficking.”
At this point, your refusal to sign on simply makes you seem wildly behind the times. Not only are all of your fast food competitors signatories to the program, but so are major corporations like Walmart, Whole Foods, Aramark, and Trader Joe’s. Some joined willingly, others put up a fight—but in the end the CIW always got the result it wanted.
And they will with you, too.
Maybe you believe your internal controls are sufficient, as your spokesperson indicated: “We believe that our supplier code of conduct provides important standards in this area, and we will continue to evaluate the best way to promote responsible business practices in our supply chain.”
But that statement rings hollow, especially since you have left the growers in Florida who—through their participation in the FFP—are proving their commitment to ending abuses like forced labor, child labor, sexual assault, wage theft, and other workplace violations. Not only that, multiple growers say that you informed them that the FFP is the reason you are leaving Florida. (I would have loved for you to respond to this allegation, Wendy’s, but you declined my invitation to comment.)
Instead, you are now purchasing tomatoes from México. The Department of Labor (DOL) lists México as one of just three countries where child labor is used in the tomato fields. And one of the major growers you now do business with—Bioparques de Occidente—has a disturbing history.
As Harper’s Magazine notes, Bioparques workers who were interviewed for an investigative series described “subhuman conditions, with workers forced to work without pay, trapped for months at a time in scorpion-infested camps, often without beds, fed on scraps, and beaten when they tried to quit.” According to the LA Times, among those trapped in the camps were “two dozen malnourished children.”
And yet you seem almost bizarrely unaware—or unconcerned—with the idea that the truth will out.
Even after the boycott launch, you ran an ad boasting that you purchase beef here in America in contrast to some of your competitors. That ad includes an image of a juicy burger with bright red tomatoes—which were quite possibly grown on farms in México where gross human rights violations occurred.
But the CIW and its allies are onto you.
So now there are students organizing to kick you off of their campuses, just as they did more than a decade ago when the CIW launched its successful boycott against Taco Bell. The faith community is mobilizing against you, too. You were the target of the biggest protest march ever to occur in Palm Beach, Florida, home to Wendy’s largest shareholder, Nelson Peltz. And next month you will see what solidarity and a powerful, diverse coalition looks like at the Wendy’s Boycott Summit in Immokalee itself.
So yeah, I’m boycotting you, Wendy’s, but I’m not the one you have to worry about. You can join your competitors, get on the right side of history, and make it easier on yourself. Or you can keep on refusing to protect farmworkers, tarnish your brand, and then lose.
Greg Kaufmann is the Editor of TalkPoverty.org and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.