Skip to content Skip to footer

Poverty Wages, Deportations, Wage Theft, Cockroaches: Farmworkers Demand Dignity From Ben & Jerry’s

Migrant workers are using direct actions to force Ben & Jerry's to raise employment standards across the supply chain.

Enrique "Kiké" Balcazar leads hundreds of farmworkers and allies in marching on Ben & Jerry's factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

More than 200 farmworkers and allies marched on the Ben & Jerry’s factory Saturday, June 17, to demand that the ice cream corporation with $600 million in annual revenue implement “Milk with Dignity.” On their 13-mile march from Vermont’s statehouse to the tourist-laden ice cream factory, farmworkers told of illegally withheld wages in the Ben & Jerry’s supply chain, 40 percent of farmworkers not getting minimum wage, 40 percent not getting a day off a week, exhaustion from insufficient sleep, a lack of clean water and cockroach-infested housing.

“Take our 30-minute guided factory tour and learn how we make ice cream and how we put our values into action at every step of the process,” beckons Ben & Jerry’s. Yet, just past the police SUVs, the discontinued ice cream “flavor graveyard,” families of out-of-state tourists, and Ben & Jerry’s employees in their corporation’s iconic tie-dyed t-shirts, Migrant Justice members told subaltern stories of hardship — once invisible labor made visible. Victor Diaz, a farmworker in the Ben & Jerry’s supply chain, says the hugely profitable ice cream giant has a responsibility to do something for farmworkers like him who work 13- to 14-hour days. “I can tell you there’s still no dignity and justice in the Ben & Jerry’s supply chain.”

Since the Milk with Dignity campaign began in 2015, farmworkers have streamed into Migrant Justice’s assemblies deep in rural Vermont, having heard of the promise of “the bonus” — the funding which Ben & Jerry’s would pay to ensure dignity in their supply chain. That promise has turned to frustration with a corporation as famous for its social justice image as its Cherry Garcia ice cream that has yet to implement Milk with Dignity, the “worker defined social responsibility” program, which the multinational ice cream giant pledged to enact in July 2015.

“The three weeks I was detained [by Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and the time my compañeros were detained affected me personally, but we’ve come out of it even more committed to keep fighting,” said Miguel Alcudia, a member of Migrant Justice, walking beside Vermont’s bucolic Route 2.

An ancillary benefit of the march for Alcudia is, “to let consumers know that inside Ben & Jerry’s supply chain, there’s injustice and exploitation of workers.” Like so many Vermont migrant farmworkers, Alcudia had his wages illegally withheld. Redolent with pest infestations and cockroaches, Alcudia’s precarious housing is just above the dairy cows themselves.

With individual farm owners being subject to monolithic ice cream and cheese corporations’ milk pricing, farmworkers are left to organize not just inside a single workplace but on an industrial scale to win justice, a classic example of what labor journalist Josh Eidelson describes as the “Who’s the Boss” problem. Just as fast-food strikes have brought about joint employer liability for McDonald’s for the labor conditions inside its franchise restaurants, so too, farmworkers have used direct actions in an attempt to leverage the largest corporation in the Vermont dairy industry to raise standards across the supply chain.

Farmworkers’ capacity to win justice is complicated by a racialized exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act, the bureaucratic legal framework which regulates the labor movement. Following the Trump administration’s executive orders on immigration, emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have used the mass deportation infrastructure created under the Obama administration to target prominent Migrant Justice organizers.

Victor Diaz leading the march on Ben & Jerry’s flagship scoopshop in 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)Victor Diaz leading the march on Ben & Jerry’s flagship scoopshop in 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

Migrant Justice has a history of people-powered victories which expand rights for farmworkers, of developing transformative leaders, and defending their leaders from ICE deportation proceedings.

The first time I interviewed Victor Diaz, he lived next to the manure pit on a dairy farm inside the Ben & Jerry’s supply chain in Vergennes, Vermont. Manure was leeching into his drinking water, and his wages were illegally being withheld. Diaz and the farmworker movement confronted his employer, won his back wages and Diaz developed a poetic voice in the process. Diaz would tell me, “There are days of winds, days of fury, and days of tears, but also there exist days of love that give us the courage to continue on.”

The second time I interviewed Diaz, he was at the forefront of a 17-city national day of action, which Migrant Justice successfully used to bring Ben & Jerry’s to the bargaining table to negotiate dignity and respect. Labor journalist Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times would recapitulate Diaz’s wage theft story in half a million print editions of the Times in the subsequent days. Diaz would tell me, “[The wage theft victory] was a transformative moment for me. I had endured years of abuse. If you look back, we had that type of transformation happening with all of our victories, whether it’s with drivers’ licenses, or our work to stop collaboration with immigration by police, and now the number of people getting involved — and also being transformed — just keeps growing and expanding.”

The third time I interviewed Diaz, he’d just been released from a federal detention center after being targeted outside a Migrant Justice event by ICE.

Diaz would detail his sense of isolation inside the ICE detention center, yet even inside that carceral setting, his movement-building would again leaven his circumstances. Building a culture of solidarity and mutual aid, Diaz and his 20 cellmates supported Jamaican migrants who were facing racial discrimination from guards, advocated for migrant detainees who were having medicine withheld, and bolstered each other as guards dropped the temperature of their cell to unbearable levels.

“There was this big movement around my case, something that I totally wasn’t expecting,” said Diaz. “We’re like a family, all united. I’ve fought for the rights of other workers and that’s something that people recognized. They had a saying, ‘Victor fought for us, now we need to fight for Victor’.”

Witnessing their movement win his freedom, Diaz described how emergent leaders among Migrant Justice members would say, “It’s really important being involved in committees and assemblies. There is an assembly coming up, and there’ll be a lot to talk about so this sort of thing doesn’t happen to others.”

Zully Palacios leading the 13-mile march on the Ben & Jerry’s factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)Zully Palacios leading the 13-mile march on the Ben & Jerry’s factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

Following Diaz’s arrest, Zully Palacios, a Migrant Justice member from Peru, described how she began organizing with Migrant Justice, “working with schools, women’s groups, other assemblies, getting together with other compas (comrades).”

“I helped with Victor’s freedom and when I was arrested, it was really terrible for me and my family,” said Palacios. Through the most arduous moments while held inside ICE’s detention center, Palacios says she was sustained by the “many people in solidarity with us.” Palacios’ story would capture national headlines, grow Migrant Justice’s number of allies nationally and win Palacios and Enrique “Kiké” Balcazar, a farmworker leader from Mexico, the Cesar Chavez award from the nation’s largest union.

“They don’t want to make us raise our voice and fight for our rights,” Palacios said of ICE, “but it won’t happen because we are strong, we’re united and we’re not going back into the shadows.”

“Although there’s still a little bit of fear, Victor, Kiké and I, we’re still on the front lines. We’re showing other compas we’re not giving up. I think it encourages them to keep fighting for our human rights,” said Palacios.

Yesenia Hernandez and Esau Peche, Migrant Justice members who helped lead the march on Ben & Jerry’s factory, would be targeted by ICE as they returned home to the dairy farms they work on, arrested and put into deportation proceedings.

Having helped win Diaz his freedom and experienced that solidarity herself, Palacios would be at the forefront of the movement-building to free Hernandez and Peche. “Nobody deserves that. You’re separating families, breaking dreams. They are part of our community, we won’t give up until they are reunited with us.”

Two weeks, several rallies and 1,400 petition signatures later, Palacios would help lead farmworkers, faith leaders and allies rallying outside Boston’s Immigration Court. Hernandez and Peche would be freed, just like Diaz, Palacios and Balcazar before them, through the constituent power of so many migrant farmworkers.

Enrique “Kiké” Balcazar leading farmworkers and allies past police, towards the Ben & Jerry’s factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)Enrique “Kiké” Balcazar leading farmworkers and allies past police, towards the Ben & Jerry’s factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

Balcazar, now a leader inside the migrant farmworker movement, first started working on Vermont dairy farms at 17, like his mother and father before him. He had been told by farmworkers for months that he was being targeted by ICE for his ability to weave together a movement from a population rendered largely invisible. He and Palacios were arrested by ICE just steps from the Migrant Justice organizing office.

Balcazar describes how the visibility of leaders who have been targeted by ICE at the front of the march on Ben & Jerry’s empowers new farmworkers to emerge into the movement’s leadership. “The actions of ICE against community leaders has had an impact, and this is what ICE and this administration wants — to instill fear in the community,” said Balcazar.

“When the ICE arrest happened, it’s always something that I thought could happen. It’s impacted my plans, my dreams,” Balcazar said. “Being in detention and seeing so many compañeros — some of them don’t know what their rights are, or who live in other states, where the movement hasn’t been there for them — I felt so inspired. Getting out of immigration detention, I felt like I had even more power to do even more for my community. And so now it’s more important than ever for us to win Milk with Dignity, and because of the political environment we find ourselves in. Because the workers — those of us who are invisible, those of us without documents — we’re the ones who face the greatest challenges, in any industry, and so if there are problems in the dairy industry, now more than ever, we need to be pushing forward with the solution, which is Milk with Dignity.”

Migrant Justice and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers marching on Wendy’s in Essex Junction, Vermont, in 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)Migrant Justice and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers marching on Wendy’s in Essex Junction, Vermont, in 2015. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

A Worker-Driven Model for Supply Chain Dignity Emerges

The Nation’s Michelle Chen writes many corporate social responsibility campaigns are “paternalistic” efforts “to stave off labor unrest.” Through the lens of corporate social responsibility (CSR) rebranding, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, just as Migrant Justice’s supply-chain organizing was poised to go public, Ben & Jerry’s Social & Environmental Assessment Report proudly claimed that the corporation had established “some of the highest standards in the dairy industry.” Many CSR campaigns erect firewalls of sustainability verbiage to preserve profits amidst a public relations crisis. “The only real remedy,” Chen writes, “would be one directed by workers themselves, if they can marshal their collective power through workplace organizing.”

“We discovered a successful model from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida,” says Balcazar, eagerly delineating the worker control which distinguishes Milk with Dignity from corporate-defined rebranding efforts. “Education to the worker, so that we know what our rights are, and how to defend them.” A worker-defined code of conduct, and a third party to monitor the industry, “which is the teeth of the program, because there are a lot of programs out there, but if you don’t have a way to enforce your standards, then it’s not real change.” Economic relief for the farm owners, as well as the farm workers, and a legally binding contract. “That’s the other set of teeth in the program, because a corporation could say, ‘Yes, I’ll join,’ and then decide it doesn’t work, and leave, abandoning their workers.”

Lucas Benitez, the award winning co-founder of CIW, said those elements have fundamentally transformed work in Florida’s tomato fields. “In our case, the Standards Council interviewed 80 percent of the workers in the industry. I don’t know of any other program that has that capacity to interview such a high percentage of workers, and for the first time ever, we workers have a voice in the industry we work within.”

“We started with a boycott of Taco Bell,” said Benitez. “We created alliances with the primary markets of these restaurants: students, young people and then to churches, and now we have a network of allies in 45 states.” To date, CIW has won worker-driven agreements with 14 corporations, from Walmart to Burger King to Taco Bell. Benitez is convinced Ben & Jerry’s could play a similarly transformative role for Vermont migrant farmworkers.

Two years into shaping Milk with Dignity, farmworkers — and even Ben & Jerry’s CEO — say the program is ready to go. All that’s missing is Ben & Jerry’s signature to begin the work of raising standards. This “everything but the signature” dynamic has caused many farmworkers to grow impatient with Ben & Jerry’s slow-rolling “the bonus” that inspired so much hope in the farmworker community.

“In 2015 we talked with Ben & Jerry’s in good faith, trying to open up a conversation with them, and they weren’t interested in hearing it,” said Balcazar. When the 17-city national day of action was featured in the New York Times, “the workers were alight, we were really happy because we saw in the near future, this new day, this new dawn that we dreamed of and organized for.” Yet, after two years of being across the bargaining table from Ben & Jerry’s, Balcazar said Migrant Justice members “got tired of excuses to not implement the program.” So, farmworkers decided, “it’s time to re-launch the public campaign.”

Several hundred Migrant Justice members and allies outside the Ben & Jerry’s factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)Several hundred Migrant Justice members and allies outside the Ben & Jerry’s factory. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

Migrant Farmworkers Take Action at Ben & Jerry’s Point of Production

As tourists clamored in front of the iconic ice cream factory, with all its Vermont landscape branding, nostalgic videos and gleaming production lines, Victor Diaz stated to scores of marchers that if they don’t get justice, farmworkers are ready to escalate further for the promise of Milk with Dignity.

“We’re going to continue struggling, continue fighting until we see this new dawn, this new day in the dairy industry that Milk with Dignity will bring,” said Diaz to more than 200 marchers. “We’re going to keep struggling and keep fighting, and if Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t sign next time, we’ll be back, twice as large.”

Speaking to the farmworkers assembled before his production facility, Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim said, “We have all the key pillars of the program defined and clear, we’ve got the right incentive structure for workers and farmers, and Ben & Jerry’s is ready to go.”

“Sign it now! Sign it now!” the crowd of several hundred farmworkers and allies chanted.

Solheim demurred and quixotically signed a poster-sized letter from Human Rights Watch, the ACLU and 13 other national human rights organizations asking him to sign the Milk with Dignity agreement, not the Milk with Dignity agreement itself, and slipped back into the crowd.

At the march and rally’s denouement, farmworkers are transported across that liminal threshold, from visibility to invisibility, from their mass movement back to their respective 60-80 hours a week jobs inside the dairy barns and milking parlors, their interrupted sleep schedules, their inability to take a day off to see their kids, their substandard housing, their poverty wages, their fears of la migra (ICE). Meanwhile, Solheim and the $600 million a year ice cream corporation ponder the timetable for farmworker dignity.

“Ben & Jerry’s has to implement the Milk with Dignity program soon, because humans’ lives can’t wait,” said Palacios. “It’s frustrating because [Solheim] doesn’t understand, he doesn’t have the same life we have. We’re only asking for our fundamental rights: good housing conditions and fair wages. We’re frustrated at [Solheim’s] excuses and excuses, over two years. At the same time, we won’t give up until we get it.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.