Wendy’s is an outlier among the United States’ five biggest fast-food companies: It’s the only one that has refused to sign on to CIW’s Fair Food Program, a worker-driven initiative that ensures pickers get a bonus on top of their poverty wages and that their farm employers abide by a code of conduct, writes Tom Philpott on Mother Jones. Wendy’s said in an emailed statement that it won’t join the program because it sources its tomatoes from greenhouses and has its own code of conduct.
The Fair Food Program, launched by the CIW in 2011, has been an essential safeguard in a state that has all but banished unions. Since 2016, the CIW has urged consumers to boycott Wendy’s until it joins. The same strategy has succeeded in pushing other big tomato buyers to commit. In 2005, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) became the first to sign. Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Burger King have all joined, in some cases after protracted battles, as have retailers Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods.
Workers from other industries are taking note of the CIW’s successes. Joining the tomato pickers, college-student activists, and aging lefties at the Palm Beach protest were six employees of the meat giant Tyson. These workers made the trek from Springdale, Arkansas, as members of Venceremos, a poultry workers-rights group, to learn firsthand how their counterparts in Immokalee have organized to improve their lives. “In isolated, largely white rural communities, you feel so powerless,” says Magaly Licolli, the group’s co-founder and director. “Seeing what the coalition has accomplished gives us back a sense of hope.”
Building worker power in Florida’s tomato field required a long and ongoing struggle. Draconian “right to work” laws effectively make traditional union organizing impossible throughout the South. Back in the 1990s, after years of fruitless organizing to push the Immokalee area’s local land barons to raise wages and improve conditions for tomato workers, the CIW decided on a different tactic: It would take on the buyers, the public-facing fast-food chains that use tomatoes to garnish burgers and tacos. While working with the US Department of Justice to root out cases of outright slavery in the fields, the group formed alliances with college-student activists to launch boycotts of popular brands, cajoling them to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes, to be deposited into a fund that would ultimately be delivered to farmworkers as a bonus.
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