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Farmworker Festival Dials Up Pressure on Wendy’s Billionaire Chairman

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers gathers in Florida to celebrate its achievements — and push to expand protections.

Farmworkers and allies march 50 miles over 5 days in 2023 to demand Wendy’s, Kroger, and Publix join the FFP.

Palm Beach, Florida, is one of our nation’s true billionaire enclaves, whose denizens include some of the world’s most powerful corporate barons, with sunny oceanfront estates valued at eight- and nine-digits.

But for the next three days, the farmworkers who harvest the produce plenishing the menu items and grocery store shelves that deliver their profits, are coming to town.

The first ever Farmworker Freedom Festival, organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), begins today, March 8, in Palm Beach and will run through March 10. Farmworkers, faith activists, artists and students will gather to celebrate the CIW’s achievements, especially the growth and successes of its signature Fair Food Program, which will likely soon see further expansion. It will be part-jubilee, filled with dance, street theater and live music.

At the same time, the festival will stress the urgency of expanding basic rights and protections to more farmworkers, especially amid new reports of human trafficking and rising extreme heat. Perhaps most crucially, the gathering will amass the CIW’s supporters into the hometown of Nelson Peltz, the billionaire chairman and top shareholder of Wendy’s, who for years has refused to sign onto the Fair Food Program even as rival brands, from McDonald’s to Burger King, have joined.

“Farmworkers rights’ are being trampled on in so many places,” said Lupe Gonzalo, a longtime farmworker and CIW staff member. “It’s urgent for companies like Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program that has been shown to protect their rights.

“Hope Is What We as Farmworkers Have for Our Futures”

Make no mistake: The Farmworker Freedom Festival is a celebration.

For three days, participants will gather in high spirits. They’ll engage in interfaith dialogue and discuss the role of the arts in the movement. They’ll join workshops on building student power and to learn about Bomba, a traditional music and dance style created by enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico. They’ll enjoy a benefit concert featuring the Guatemalan rock band Malacates Trébol Shop and others.

The festival will also feature street theater created and performed by farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida, including a two-story tall puppet of a farmworker named Esperanza, or “Hope,” who festival-goers will walk through on the streets of Palm Beach as they demand Nelson Peltz and Wendy’s join the Fair Food Program.

“Hope is what we as farmworkers have for our futures and for an agreement with Wendy’s, and this enormous puppet represents that hope that we have,” says Gonzalo.

Farmworkers protected by the Fair Food Program attend an on-the-clock education session from the CIW on their rights under the FFP.
Farmworkers protected by the Fair Food Program attend an on-the-clock education session from the CIW on their rights under the FFP.
Farmworkers protected by the Fair Food Program attend an on-the-clock education session from the CIW on their rights under the FFP.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which began in the 1990s as a workers’ center fighting for the rights of tomato pickers, has made tremendous strides in improving working conditions for farmworkers, historically one of the most unprotected workforces in the U.S.

Its signature Fair Food Program, created in 2011, has grocery and fast-food giants sign onto a legally binding agreement to enforce a code of conduct in their supply chains that is shaped by workers and monitored by a Fair Food Standards Council. In just over a decade, it has grown to cover tens of thousands of farmworkers across 10 states. After years of campaigning, seemingly immovable corporate behemoths, from Walmart to McDonald’s to Whole Foods and others, have signed on.

Today, the Fair Food Program is lauded across the world as a uniquely effective, worker-driven system for protecting farmworkers from workplace abuses like wage theft, sexual harassment and human trafficking, and for organizing and educating farmworkers to vigilantly monitor working conditions and report violations of their rights.

“There Are Still Many Abuses Happening”

The festival is also an occasion for farmworkers and allies to collectively deepen their commitments and bring new urgency to the fight for workers’ rights.

“At the same time that the coalition has made so many advances and achievements in the area improving workers’ rights in the agricultural industry, outside of the Fair Food Program there are still many abuses happening,” said Gonzalo.

She emphasized recent cases of “modern-day slavery” in the fields, including among H-2A “guestworkers.” The past few years have seen several high-profile exposés of trafficked farm labor in the U.S. In one case, a company called Los Villatoros Harvesting stole the wages of workers and confiscated their documents while illegally moving them to multiple states and housing them in overcrowded motel rooms. A frantic call to the CIW’s office phone ultimately helped save the workers and bring the operation under federal prosecution.

In 2015, the CIW was awarded a Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. “The coalition has effectively eradicated human trafficking in the farms that participate in their Fair Food Program,” remarked then-Secretary of State John Kerry.

Sexual harassment and wage theft also remain huge dangers for farmworkers. With rising extreme temperatures, suffocating heat in the fields — while not a new issue — is becoming increasingly dire and killing farmworkers. The Fair Food Program has responded to extreme heat by creating protections like required breaks for cooling down, access to clean water provided by the company and the right of workers to take a rest in the shade if they feel symptoms of heat illness.

“These are the strongest set of workplace heat protections in the United States,” The Washington Post reported last month, emphasizing that they are implemented “by the workers who spent years organizing to push companies to adopt them.”

“It’s Urgent for Companies Like Wendy’s to Join the Fair Food Program”

The festival will also feature a renewed call for fast-food megachain Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, with gatherings focused on Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s billionaire chairman and top shareholder.

Wendy’s has so far refused to join the Fair Food Program despite years of campaigning by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. McDonalds, Burger King, Safeway and Taco Bell have joined, so Wendy’s is a holdout among its fast-food peers.

Peltz is the real power behind Wendy’s. He owns a 16.12 percent stake in the company. He has been Wendy’s chairman since 2007. His business partner, Peter May, and son Matthew are the board’s two vice chairs.

Peltz, who is worth $1.5 billion, is the founder and CEO of Trian Partners, a hedge fund that oversees around $8.5 billion in assets. He owns a waterfront “monster mansion” on a lavish Palm Beach estate valued at $136.4 million.

The coalition plans to use the festival as an occasion to directly appeal to Peltz. Farmworkers and faith allies will gather at a community park near his home to “deliver messages of hope for progress and support for farmworkers in Wendy’s produce supply chain.” Organizers plan to walk through the streets of Palm Beach to “ask the community there to call on their neighbor Nelson Peltz to come to the table,” says Gonzalo.

Farmworkers and allies march 50 miles over 5 days in 2023 to demand Wendy’s, Kroger, and Publix join the FFP.

Wendy’s has defended its refusal to join the Fair Food Program by claiming it buys tomatoes from “indoor, hydroponic greenhouse farms” and follows its own supplier code of conduct.

But Gonzalo says this rings hollow. “What we understand is that’s a voluntary code of conduct, so there’s not anything binding that would lead Wendy’s to stop buying from farms where there are abuses happening,” she says.

Moreover, greenhouse workers need the Fair Food Program as well. “Being in a greenhouse doesn’t mean that you automatically have your rights,” says Gonzalo. “There are many problems in greenhouses. We want to help them guarantee to their consumers that the workers are protected and have a voice.”

The CIW is also demanding that supermarket chains Kroger and Publix join the Fair Food Program.

Peltz isn’t just stirring controversy at Wendy’s. He’s also leading a proxy battle at Disney to win board seats so he can raise the company’s stock price. Wall Street efforts to increase company share values often result in cost-cutting moves like mass layoffs. Trian owns $3.5 billion in Disney shares. Peltz waged a proxy battle at Disney last year, which he ended only after Disney announced 7,000 layoffs.

Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of company co-founder Roy O. Disney, is actively opposing Peltz. She has been a strong supporter of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

A Time of Expansion for the Fair Food Program

The Farmworker Freedom Festival comes at a pivotal moment of potential growth for the Fair Food Program.

The program has now expanded into Mexico, Chile and South Africa. It’s moved beyond tomatoes to cover a range of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Similar programs, such as Milk With Dignity in Vermont, created by Migrant Justice with the support of the CIW, have taken off.

The success of the Fair Food Program has helped establish the model of worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) as a gold standard for protecting workers from human rights abuses within supply chains. Unlike ineffective corporate-backed programs, worker-driven social responsibility relies on workers themselves to define and enforce code of conducts that drive legally binding agreements with major supply chain actors who face market sanctions for violations.

The WSR model is set for potentially major growth in the U.S. In September 2023, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new Farm Labor Stabilization and Protections Pilot Program that has as a key aim improving working conditions for farmworkers. In essence, the federal government is incentivizing farms to improve working conditions through offering subsidies, with the WSR models like the Fair Food Program as “platinum” tier programs, offering the highest subsidies.

As of now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers told Truthout, 32 farms across 20 states, including 15 states that currently don’t have the Fair Food Program, have applied for a USDA grant specifically to join the program, meaning thousands of new farmworkers could potentially come under its protections.

“We Have a Pen Ready for Him to Sign”

Historically, farmworkers have been one of the most exploited labor forces in the U.S. They were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that legislated protections and union rights for many workers. Farm bosses today regularly use fear and intimidation to exploit many undocumented immigrants who labor across the U.S.’s agricultural empire.

The CIW’s traveling Modern-Day Slavery Museum, which is visiting the festival, documents this history. Attendees will learn about racial chattel slavery, the convict-lease system of the Jim Crow era, and more recent cases of modern-day slavery that the CIW has uncovered and brought to federal prosecution.

While labor and human rights abuses still suffuse the farming supply chain, a key emphasis of the festival is how far the struggle for rights and protections has come with the expansion of the Fair Food Program. Organizers say this should inspire everyone. If some of the most vulnerable workers in the U.S. can achieve victories like the Fair Food Program, it offers optimism and hope for everyone else.

Moreover, all of us are tied to the farming supply chain in some way, and consumers can join the fight. “You can talk to the manager of your Wendy’s or download a letter,” says Gonzalo. “It helps for them to hear from their consumers.”

While Nelson Peltz has been difficult to move, the CIW remains optimistic about the campaign’s ultimate success. Peltz won’t be around forever — he turns 82 this year — and the CIW is nothing if not persistent. The coalition has been organizing for three decades and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

Gonzalo stresses that the campaign isn’t personal and that the CIW is eager to move forward in partnership with Wendy’s. “Whenever Nelson Peltz is ready, we have the agreement,” she says. “We have a pen ready for him to sign.”

If Wendy’s decides to become a partner in the Fair Food Program, says Gonzalo, it could impact thousands of workers.

“As workers, we’re asking you to make good decisions for your corporation that can allow us to be seen as human beings and have very basic rights,” she says. “We’re not asking for anything crazy. We’re just asking for our basic human rights to be protected.”

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