“Your burgers may be square but your food ain’t fair:” Hundreds of students, farmworkers and consumers take to the streets in a national boycott of Wendy’s

“Wendy’s— escucha! estamos en la lucha!” “El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido!” “Que queremos? Justicia! Cuando? Ahora!” (“Wendy’s— listen! We are in the fight!” “The people, united, will never be divided.” “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”)

These are just a few of the dozens of chants that rang through the streets of West Palm Beach on Saturday, March 12. They came from the mouths of individuals and organizations, of students and farmworkers, of people united with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in protest and national boycott of Wendy’s.

At the protest – called the Workers Voice Tour – more than 500 marchers, farmworkers and consumers alike, joined together in opposition to Wendy’s refusal to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP), a social liability contract which ensures fair wages and essential human rights for farmworkers.

“We have one goal: to get justice, dignity and respect for every farmworker that works in Florida’s fields,” Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, member of the CIW, declared at the onset of the march.

The Worker’s Voice Tour began on March 3 in New York City with the announcement of a national boycott of Wendy’s. The tour culminated with the Saturday march through downtown West Palm Beach – just a few hours east of where the CIW first assembled.

The CIW is a group of self-empowered farmworkers working with growers and buyers to create a safe and fair workplace in farms across Florida and, as of 2015, in five other states as well.

West Palm Beach was a strategic location for the last march in the Worker’s Voice Tour. Not only does West Palm, the third richest city in the state, provide a breathtaking contrast to the marchers in t-shirts and tennis shoes, it also happens to be the vacation town of Wendy’s board chairman and shareholder, Nelson Peltz.  

About two years ago, the CIW decided that it was time to take direct action against Wendy’s, as the last major fast food retailer that has yet to join the FFP. The Coalition started by organizing students and getting them to boycott Wendy’s off their campuses.

“They announced the national student boycott last year at the Spring Action concert in St. Pete, so they kind of built up the boycott starting with the students,” second-year Alex Schelle, a member of the Student-Farmworker Alliance, said.

Hundreds of marchers trekked down the glossy streets of downtown West Palm with an irresistible energy. Spectators in cars, shops and on the sidewalks flipped out their phones to record the mass of activists fighting for a boycott of Wendy’s and, by extension, rights for farmworkers.

“Many people saw for the first time the faces of the people responsible for the fruits and veggies on their table,” Lucas Benitez of the CIW said to the hundreds of marchers gathered in front of where he stood in a flat-bed truck adorned with “Boycott Wendy’s” signs and flags. “Their reality is tied to our reality and they can’t continue to ignore us.”

Since the FFP launched in 2010, 14 major food corporations from McDonalds to Walmart have signed onto the program and validated the need for improved working conditions and dependable wages for farmworkers.

Instead of following in the footsteps of virtually all their competitors, Wendy’s opted to move in the opposite direction and switched its purchases from Florida to Mexico in the early days of the FFP.

Wendy’s new source was uncovered just last month in a Harper’s Magazine article. Bioparques de Occidente, a farm which was the subject of a major slavery prosecution in 2013 and which still provides 6 million cases of tomatoes to the U.S. market every year, now sells to Wendy’s. In case you’re wondering, these tomatoes are sold under the brand name Kaliroy (read the sticker).  

“My relationship with Wendy’s, personally and professionally, is none,” Nico Gumbs, the youth program coordinator for the National Farmworker Ministry, declared at the march. “I will not be spending any money or allowing friends or colleagues to spend money on a company that is benefiting from the exploitation of farmworkers.”

The National Farmworker Ministry (NFM) is an organization that, as Gumbs informed me, “Works with other groups to change the social, economic and political condition that farmworkers face nationwide.” One of their main partners is the CIW.

“We had a busload of folks come down from Orlando, we mobilized constituents of faith, students, community organizations to stand in solidarity with the Coalition as they try to get Wendy’s to sign on to their Fair Food Program,” Gumbs said.

The New York Times dubbed the FFP “the best workplace monitoring program” in the nation and, against a backdrop of falling wages and harsh conditions in the modern agriculture industry, the FFP is a dream come true.

The program pledges participating buyers (food companies and corporations) to restrict their suppliers to ones which have complied with the Fair Food Code of Conduct. Some of what that entails for growers includes a zero tolerance policy for forced labor, providing health measures such as shade structures and water fountains in the field, and incorporating a safe system to report abuse in the workplace.  

Another vital part of the FFP is the requirement for buyers to pay the “penny per pound” premium which is passed on to workers as a bonus on every paycheck. Between 2011 and 2015, more than $20 million in premiums were paid into the program from the pockets of buyers (again, that’s all the Subways, Taco Bells and 12 other major food corporations).

At the march in West Palm, I had the privilege to speak with Wilson Perez, a Florida farmworker and seven-year member of the CIW. The Coalition graciously provided a volunteer to translate my questions and his story.

“I had a problem in the fields once and I couldn’t find anywhere to solve it and bring my grievance forth,” Perez said. “Three weeks went by where the problem went unresolved and by then it was too late but the great thing was that I found the CIW and to know that for the future the Coalition of Immokalee Workers could help me in these cases.

“With the Fair Food Program, there have been deep transformations in the fields of Florida,” Perez added. “We’ve had a series of new rights that we’ve won and been able to implement. I saw the changes happen because, when I began work, there was a different reality. After a few years, I started to see changes under the Fair Food Program, for example the right to sit under the shade when the weather was too hot.”

One of the most incredible parts of the march was the presence of countless organizations that traveled from far and near to stand in solidarity with the CIW. The Student-Farmworker Alliance brought young people in from all over; Women Working Together – a group from Miami – joined the fight too; and members of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health took to the streets wearing shirts that said “Soy Poderosa” (I am powerful).

A group from Gainesville called the Dream Defenders supported the Worker’s Voice Tour for the second time in West Palm Beach. The day before the Saturday march, the Dream Defenders took part in a protest on the University of Florida campus to “Boot the Braids.”

The Dream Defenders are a Florida-based group which fights for the non-violent liberation of all people of color. The group sprung from an act of civil disobedience back in 2012, in which members occupied Governor Rick Scott’s office for 31 days (the longest sit-in known to the state) in objection to the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

The Dream Defenders now has chapters in every major university and is still growing. As a youth-related organization, they focus on issues such as the school-to-jail pipeline and political education.

“We want it so the people we’re working with are aware of issues and can base their opinions off something,” Brittany King, secretary of education and outreach coordinator for the Goddsville (Gainesville) chapter of Dream Defenders, said. “We want to be that base for political query,” she added.

The march finished with a wedding. Members of the CIW performed the union between Wendy’s and “Señor Explotación” as farmworkers and marchers helped themselves to water and snacks at the end of a long, powerful day.

“This is the end but it is also the beginning,” Benitez said. “More than 150 workers from the CIW marched all along the east coast and today, on the streets of West Palm Beach, we’ve made history. A group of poor farmworkers, we have walked on streets billionaires walk through. We’ve let them know today that we are all part of the state of Florida. They will have to come to the table with us. They will regret they didn’t do it sooner.”

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