Freedom Fast for Fair Food

United Methodist Women members join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in demanding independent monitoring and safe working conditions for women farmworkers.

Freedom Fast for Fair Food
The children of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers speak during the Time’s Up Wendy’s march in New York City in March 2018.

For five days in March 2018, nearly 100 farmworkers sat outside the New York City office of Nelson Peltz, non-executive chairman for Wendy’s fast food restaurants. There they fasted to raise awareness of the restaurant chain’s inhumane treatment of farmworkers and to call on the Wendy’s hamburger chain to join the Fair Food Program, asking Wendy’s to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes purchased to help ensure fair wages, to guarantee independent monitoring of the agreement and to work with growers who do not violate human rights. All other major fast food restaurants have joined the program—Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Chipotle and Subway, among others. But not Wendy’s.

The fast was sponsored by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose Campaign for Fair Food led to the Fair Food Program, an agreement between the coalition and Florida Tomato Growers to ensure fair wages and safe working conditions and overseen by the Fair Foods Standards Council. Called the Freedom Fast, those fasting March 11-15 wore yellow armbands and sat morning to night on the sidewalk in the snow in front of 280 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. They were joined each day by allies and supporters, including United Methodist Women members.

Encouraging fair food

When Florida tomato suppliers signed onto the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s shifted its tomato purchases to Mexico, where workers continue to confront wage theft, gender-based violence and child labor. Wendy’s has in place a “Suppliers Code of Conduct,” but it leaves out workers’ input and has no provision for enforcement. The Alliance for Fair Food, a national network working in partnership with the Immokalee workers, calls this code of conduct empty, with the purpose of protecting Wendy’s image, not farmworkers.

In contrast, the Fair Food Program has a proven record of improving working conditions and quality of life for farmworkers. According to the program, since its implementation in 2011 it has interviewed over 16,000 workers, made sure almost 150,000 farmworkers understand their rights, has achieved over $25 million in fair food premiums and has solved more than 1,800 worker complaints. Because of the Fair Food Program, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has documented a decrease in violence against women in the fields. This is because both workers and employers are trained and monitored regarding sexual harassment

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is pressuring Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program through actions that include letter-writing and awareness-raising, including the use of the hashtag #TimesUpWendys on social media. Besides poverty, farmworkers face sexual assault, sexual harassment, physical violence, verbal abuse, wage theft, pesticide exposure and heat stroke; Wendy’s, who ended 2017 with a $66.6 million operating profit and a net income of $159.3 million—a year-over-year increase of 451.3 percent resulting primarily from a tax break thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—has deemed a penny a pound too expensive a burden.

The website fair-food-program offers more ways to be in solidarity with farmworkers and encourage Wendy’s to prioritize human rights.

Focus on women

On the final day of the Freedom Fast, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and partners hosted a “Time’s Up Wendy’s” march, focusing on the sexual abuse faced by women farmworkers. A large sign displayed at the fast site read, “We fast because Wendy’s chairman, Nelson Peltz, won’t use his power to help end sexual violence for farmworker women.” According to the coalition, Peltz is the single most important decision-maker in the company: his Trian Partners is the company’s largest shareholder, he is chairman of Wendy’s board of directors, of which his son and business partners are also members, and he is also head of the board’s committee on social responsibility.

In response, Heidi Schauer, a spokesperson for Wendy’s, told the Huffington Post they buy tomatoes from Mexico for their superior quality.

“There’s no new news here,” she said, “aside from the CIW trying to exploit the positive momentum that has been generated by and for women in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement to advance their interests.”

Actress Alyssa Milano, best known for her roles on Who’s the Boss? and Charmed and a prominent figure in the Time’s Up movement to end sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, responded to Wendy’s insulting statement, saying, “Wendy’s, this is very simple: These women are the #MeToo movement, which is a grassroots movement of women from all corners of society exposing the painfully common experience of sexual harassment, misconduct and assault. … To suggest that farmworker women—whose voices, power, and strength were on impressive display in front of the offices of Wendy’s Board Chairman all last week during their Freedom Fast—are somehow unwelcome intruders in the fight for dignity and safety for women is downright absurd and unbelievably offensive.”

Lending a famous voice to the boycott, she continued, “I stand with our sisters in the fields, and applaud their efforts to expand the new protections guaranteed in the Fair Food Program to the millions more women who are seeking change.”

United Methodist Women in solidarity

Judith McCrae and Pat Knebel, president and resource coordinator for the New York Conference United Methodist Women, respectively, and Corinne Arthur, secretary for the Greater New Jersey United Methodist Women joined staff executive for public action Carol Barton in Manhattan for the March 15 rally and march.

United Methodist Women advocates for a living wage through the Living Wage for All campaign focused on passing state legislation that builds the base for a living wage. Because gains in state legislation will continue to leave farmworkers behind, much of the current farmworker organizing focuses on seeking union contracts or food certification agreements with growers and retailers. Farmworker organizations have also targeted the big companies that are the primary purchasers of products as a way to pressure growers to do the right thing. This is why the faith community actively stands with farmworkers to build power to claim their rights. Domestic workers and tipped workers are other examples of excluded and vulnerable labor groups, most of whom historically have been black workers and who are now mostly immigrants of color. In these cases, approaches other than legislation are needed. Our accompaniment with them is part of United Methodist Women’s commitment to the Charter for Racial Justice and our work for racial and economic justice.

“Women helping women toward justice is why I’m here,” said McCrae. “We are mothers. We are caregivers. Give us fair wages! United Methodist Women is in mission with women, youth and children, so we need to be here to speak out.”

United Methodist Women from across the country sent notes of solidarity with the farmworkers, several of which were read from the stage as United Methodist Women kicked off the rally of nearly 2,000 participants. The full nine pages of prayers and messages for support were given to the fasting farmworkers.

Earlier in the week, United Methodist Women hosted Lupe Gonzalo, senior leader for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, at a Women in Migration Network forum at the Church Center for the United Nations. This was a parallel event to the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and about 150 people attended.

“The event focused on the realities of gender-based violence for migrant farmworkers as well as the organizing they are doing to successfully change that reality through the Fair Food Program,” said Barton. “Those agreements create mechanisms for mandatory sexual harassment training of bosses and co-workers, control over working conditions and a pay raise—all of which are monitored by the workers without fear of retaliation or firing. This is what the workers are asking of Wendy’s.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers also hosted a display at Assembly 2018. Their “Harvest Against Violence” exhibit lifted up the progress made by farmworker women leaders through the Fair Food Agreement.

United Methodist Women members, especially in Florida, are longtime supporters of the farmworkers’ coalition. Joining the New York march in person and in prayer was a way to continue supporting women and economic justice, to take further steps towards a living wage and amplify the workers’ stories.

“This is a time when we must make our voices heard and join our steps in solidarity with those who organize to make a difference for just working conditions, a living wage and safety and security in the workplace,” said Arthur.

Knebel agreed.

“Workers are an organization’s greatest asset, and they deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully and valued for what they contribute. I support all workers in their efforts to be treated fairly and to be valued.”

Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 7/9/2018 12:00:00 AM