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Vermont Dairy Workers Battle Corporate Greed and Demand “Milk With Dignity”

Migrant workers are demanding their rights and campaigning to end the exploitation of their labor.

Farm workers march on a Hannaford Supermarket in Middlebury, Vermont, demanding “Milk with Dignity,” on May 1, 2022.

Migrant workers face brutal conditions from the borders to the fields and factories of the U.S. As The Wall Street Journal documented, President Joe Biden’s continuation of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies has led to 2.2 million arrests and 890 deaths on the border, both record numbers.

Migrants are fleeing economic crises often caused by U.S. policies as well as oppressive regimes, political instability and climate change. Those that make it through Washington’s gauntlet on the border find jobs that pay poorly and offer no benefits, but are essential to the U.S. economy, like farm work and meatpacking.

These migrants may be essential, but they are precarious, and because they are undocumented, they are criminalized and subject to surveillance, arrest and deportation.

Where there is exploitation and oppression, however, there is always resistance. In Vermont, dairy workers organizing with Migrant Justice are engaged in a campaign to compel the grocery store chain Hannaford to join their compact, Milk with Dignity, which would guarantee fair wages, better benefits, and improved working and living conditions on dairy farms throughout the northeast.

Sour Conditions in Vermont’s Dairy Industry

These workers began organizing after the tragic death of José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a worker who was killed by a mechanized gutter scraper in a dairy barn in Fairfield, Vermont, in 2009. Since then, Migrant Justice has led a ceaseless struggle for labor and immigrant rights in the state.

The workers are fighting deteriorating conditions in the dairy industry, which has undergone systematic restructuring over the last couple of decades. Farms compete with one another to market their milk to giant agribusiness corporations, which squeeze them for the lowest price possible.

Farmers gain advantage over each other by taking out loans to purchase machinery to increase the productivity of their cows and thereby gain a wider share of the market. Even with subsidized milk prices, many small farms have found it impossible to keep up, going out of business or selling out to larger ones as well as real estate developers.

As a result, the number of dairy farms in the state has collapsed from 4,027 in 1969 to fewer than 650 in 2021. As small farms go under, the remaining farms buy up their land and cattle, growing into larger, factory-style operations. Because of this consolidation and mechanization, overall milk production has continued to rise from 2.5 billion pounds of milk in 2010 to 2.6 billion in 2019.

Yet such concentration has not overcome the crisis of profitability in the industry. No longer able to sustain operations with just their own labor, farm owners in recent decades have begun to hire workers, creating a labor market where one did not previously exist.

But bosses at these factory farms are still mired in debt and, under pressure to cut costs, seek out the cheapest possible labor, hiring undocumented migrants who now comprise the overwhelming majority of dairy workers. Farm labor in the dairy industry has always been hard; workers have to milk cows every 12 hours, 365 days a year, otherwise the cows will die.

The big corporations’ price pressure and the logic of competition between farms have made this already arduous job brutal in nature. In 2014, Migrant Justice conducted a survey of workers on Vermont’s dairy farms about their wages, working conditions and housing.

It found that “40 percent of farmworkers are paid less than the Vermont minimum wage; 40 percent have no days off; 28 percent routinely work seven hours or more without a break to eat; 20 percent have their pay illegally withheld; 15 percent do not have eight consecutive hours off, per day, to sleep; and 15 percent live in overcrowded housing and 15 percent have inadequate heat.”

Another study conducted in 2021 by Bindu Panikkar and Mary-Kate Barrett confirmed these results. “Vermont migrant dairy farmworkers received poor health and safety training and lacked sufficient protective gear,” they wrote. “Over three quarters of the respondents reported experiencing harm from chemical and biological risks. Close to half the survey respondents reported headaches, itchy eyes, and cough; a quarter reported breathing difficulties; three fourths reported being hurt by animal-related risks. These exposures and existing health concerns are avoidable. Migrant workers require better social representation and advocates to negotiate better work-related protection and training, access to health services, and social welfare to ensure their health and safety.”

Both studies found that women faced particular forms of sexist abuse and violence. Panikkar and Barrett report: “Sexual harassment is another issue on farms that leads to poor psychological health outcomes. One community member reported harassment occurring from farm management, impacting mainly women and the LGBTQ+ community.”

Under Threat From the U.S. Border Regime

The majority of agricultural workers are excluded from laws that guarantee minimum wages, overtime pay and collective bargaining in most states, and, despite paying taxes, undocumented workers are denied all other rights afforded to U.S. citizens. These workers are subject to the ever-present threat of arrest and deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol.

In Vermont, many of the dairy farms are close to the heavily militarized Canadian border and within the 100-mile zone policed not only by ICE but also Border Patrol. That policing is buttressed by ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston, Vermont, which operates a national 24/7 snitch line where callers can report suspected undocumented immigrants. The center also provides federal agents and local police with information, and helps coordinate arrests, detentions and deportations not only in the state but throughout the country.

The omnipresent threat of ICE and Border Patrol tends to intimidate migrant workers from organizing to improve their conditions. The farm bosses take advantage of these workers’ political oppression to maximize their exploitation in the cut-throat dairy industry.

Organizers with Migrant Justice realized they had to wage a political, legal and labor struggle to improve dairy workers’ conditions in the community and on the job. They led a successful campaign to win driver’s licenses for migrants, scored a series of victories in their efforts to bar collaboration between local police and immigration authorities, and began organizing workers on the farms to improve their conditions.

Victory! Ben & Jerry’s Joins Milk With Dignity

In 2014, Migrant Justice launched its signature campaign: Milk with Dignity. Rather than trying to extract concessions from the state’s indebted farms, Migrant Justice targets the profitable agribusiness corporations. Those big companies are awash in cash and can afford to pay higher prices for dairy products, which can then fund better wages and conditions for farm workers.

Milk with Dignity is part of a model of worker organizing called worker-driven social responsibility. Once corporations join the compact by signing a legally binding contract, they are required to pay price premiums to farms, which in turn are required to meet basic standards enshrined in the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct.

Farms that agree to the code of conduct have to pay the prevailing minimum wage, provide benefits, establish a safe working environment, and guarantee humane housing. The code also prohibits sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and other oppressions.

To empower workers to enforce these stipulations, participating farms are required to allow Migrant Justice to organize worker-to-worker education about the code. The program also runs a 24/7 Worker Support Line to answer questions and register any complaints. All of this is overseen by an independent third party, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, that enforces compliance and implements corrective action in response to complaints.

Dairy workers developed the program in collaboration with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which set a precedent in 2011 with the Fair Food Program, which established a contract with 30 agribusinesses and 14 retail corporations to ensure human rights, fair wages and dignified working conditions on the farms in Florida’s $650 billion tomato industry.

Migrant Justice’s first target was Ben & Jerry’s, Vermont’s iconic ice cream manufacturer, now owned by Unilever, whose annual revenue in 2022 was $63.29 billion. Migrant workers highlighted the contradiction between Ben & Jerry’s stated commitment to social responsibility and the deplorable conditions on the Vermont farms that provide the company with almost all the milk for its ice cream.

Faced with public appeals, forums and demonstrations, Ben & Jerry’s promised to join Milk with Dignity in 2015. The company, however, dragged its feet, forcing Migrant Justice to up the ante with an escalating campaign of protests that culminated in a 13-mile mass march from Vermont’s state capitol to the Ben & Jerry’s plant.

ICE responded to the struggle with repression. The agency carried out targeted arrests of prominent Migrant Justice leaders Enrique Balcázar, Zully Palacios and Alex Carrillo. But rather than intimidating the movement, thousands responded with protests in Burlington and hundreds at court hearings in Boston, eventually securing the freedom of Balcázar and Palacios, while Carrillo was forced to accept voluntary departure.

ICE even had the gall to arrest two migrant workers, Yesenia Hernandez-Ramos and Esau Peche-Ventura, as they were leaving the march to Ben & Jerry’s. Again, the movement freed them. In total, ICE arrested 20 leading activists in Migrant Justice in an apparent attempt to intimidate the movement.

But farmworkers were undeterred. As Balcázar stated, “We should continue to organize ourselves and not be afraid. We can never return to the shadows. This is not an option.” In a major precedent-setting victory, Migrant Justice eventually settled a legal case against ICE, which agreed not to deport the migrant activists and to instruct its officers not to target people “for exercising First Amendment rights.”

The determination and bravery of farm workers and popular support for their struggle finally forced Ben & Jerry’s to join Milk with Dignity in 2017. At the victory rally, Balcázar declared, “This is a historic moment for dairy workers. We have worked tirelessly to get here and now we move forward towards a new day in the industry.”

Transforming Conditions on the Farms

In just a few years, working conditions on the farms that Ben & Jerry sources its milk from were transformed. Milk with Dignity reports that it now oversees 51 farms with 209 workers, covering 20 percent of Vermont’s total dairy production.

With the premium price Ben & Jerry’s pays, the program has invested $3.4 million in workers’ wages and funded dramatic improvements to labor and housing conditions on farms now included in Milk with Dignity. In 2021, 90 percent of workers were paid at least the state minimum wage, over 80 percent have a weekly day off, 90 percent have eight consecutive hours of time off work, 97 percent have access to sick leave, and similar gains in housing and workplace safety.

One worker, Luisa, captured the transformation, saying, “Without Milk with Dignity … there weren’t raises. I didn’t feel my work was respected. But the program has made a huge difference in wages, in benefits. I feel like my work is more valued now.”

Another worker, Yovani Moreno, told Truthout, “I used to work 16 hours a day. Now my schedule is more reasonable, and I can get enough rest. Conditions are much better now: the housing is better, and we each have our own room; we have paid vacation; if we get sick, we can take the day off and it’s not taken out of our paycheck.”

Harvard Business Review praised Milk with Dignity as a model program of worker-driven social responsibility, calling attention to its hotline in particular. It noted the “hotline is well-utilized, fielding more than 460 calls over 30 months from a population of approximately 260 workers. This success is even more impressive because the MD [Milk with Dignity] program serves a workforce largely comprised of economically precarious, migrant workers.”

The Struggle in Hannaford’s Food Chain

Flush with victory, Migrant Justice launched a second campaign in 2019 with a march on a Hannaford store in Burlington, Vermont, to pressure the grocery chain to join Milk with Dignity. The company is headquartered in Maine and is a subsidiary of the Dutch agribusiness giant Ahold Delhaize, with shops all over New England and New York.

The two corporations are some of the most profitable in the U.S. and world. Hannaford boasted revenue of $4.2 billion in 2021 and double-digit growth, while Ahold Delhaize reported $91.51 billion in sales in 2022. Just like Ben & Jerry’s, both companies make sundry declarations about their commitment to social justice.

Hannaford claims that part of its mission is “to invest in creating and sustaining healthy communities in our five-state region by providing financial support to nonprofit organizations and programs that focus on improvement of the root causes impacting the quality of life for our customers, associates and neighbors.” Ahold Delhaize professes that its suppliers “demonstrate a high standard of business ethics and a commitment to respect human rights, and to provide products that are safe and produced in clean and safe facilities with good working conditions.”

This is at odds with the reality farm workers face on the dairy farms where they source their milk. Workers, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, told Truthout about the myriad problems they confront.

They report being paid below the state’s minimum wage and working for as many as 13 to 14 hours a day. “We are paid low salaries,” a farm worker told Truthout. “If anyone has a work accident, there is no worker’s compensation, and we are afraid to lose our jobs, so we prefer to keep quiet and not ask for anything.”

Workers describe being forced to work even when sick or injured. “I fell and injured my arm, and I was in pain,” another worker told Truthout. “I asked my employer to give me time off to recover and go to a doctor. He told me: ‘I’m sorry, there is nobody to cover for you.’ So, I had to go to work in pain. My job required me to lift heavy buckets and I was concerned my injury would get worse. I kept working for a week until I was able to make it to a doctor’s appointment.”

Many describe terrible housing. A worker told Truthout, “We are 10 workers sharing a house with four rooms [and] only [one] bathroom. This house doesn’t have a heat system, there is only heat in the kitchen, but it doesn’t cover the whole house. The heat broke many times last year, and the farm owners took too long to repair it. There are holes in the walls where the outside cold comes in. The windows have cracks and are not sealed.”

In another case, a worker stated that their housing “is infested with cockroaches. We asked our employer to fumigate, but it wasn’t enough. The house has a broken window where the snow enters during the winter. We have to put in electric space heaters to stay warm, but our employers get mad and don’t let us keep them. The stove doesn’t work, and the bathrooms are in bad condition. The house is made for five people but eight of us live here.”

Others reported physical threats and attacks. “One evening the supervisor was drinking,” a worker told Truthout, “and he started to come into our room. He was carrying a machete and started to threaten us. … I decided to call the police. We had to leave out the back door when the police came. My supervisor denied everything to the police.” That worker was later fired by the boss in retaliation.

The contrast between conditions on farms in Ben & Jerry’s supply chain now covered by Milk with Dignity and farms in Hannaford’s supply chain could not be greater. Yovani Moreno, who works on a farm included in the program, explained to Truthout, “We’re campaigning for Hannaford to join Milk with Dignity, so all workers can have the same protections that I have now.”

Deception, Evasion and Stonewalling

Despite Migrant Justice’s repeated invitations, Hannaford has refused to even meet to discuss, let alone join, Milk with Dignity. The company continues to claim the farms where it sources dairy products meet its standards.

In its Human Rights Report 2022, Ahold Delhaize denied the stream of reports Migrant Justice has collected from workers in Hannaford’s supply chain. It even featured Hannaford as a model corporation, praising it for its supposed “due diligence review across its dairy supply chain.”

Hannaford claimed at Ahold Delhaize’s Annual General Meeting in 2022 that it worked with Vermont’s Department of Labor to address any problems on the farms. But, when Migrant Justice submitted a Public Records Request for documentation of any contact between the corporation and the state, the agency’s general counsel responded that it was “unable to locate any communication between Hannaford, Ahold Delhaize, or any of their representatives and the Department of Labor.”

With complaints mounting, Hannaford told workers to contact their “Speak Up Line,” which is contracted out to a private company called NAVEX, promising to investigate and solve any complaints. In reality, the line is a public relations scam. Migrant Justice organizers told Truthout that workers from 11 farms in Hannaford’s supply chain have repeatedly contacted the hotline and registered complaints to no avail.

No Justice, No Peace

Stonewalled by normal channels, Migrant Justice has turned to protest. Each May Day, even at the height of the pandemic, farmworkers have marched on Hannaford stores, demanded a meeting with company CEO Mike Vail, and agitated for the company to join Milk with Dignity.

They have staged two mass marches at or near Hannaford’s headquarters in Scarborough, Maine: one in November 2021 and another in August 2022. While allies have staged days of action at dozens of stores throughout the region, Migrant Justice brought workers out to weekly protests in October, ended last year with a mass march in Middlebury, and organized nearly 700 campaign supporters to call the company on February 15 while farmworkers again tried to meet with company representatives in Maine to no avail.

The movement’s iconic chants have echoed off the mountains in every corner of the state. Nearly every activist and unionist in the notoriously white and mainly monolingual English-speaking state can recite them: “Que queremos? Leche con dignidad! Cuando? Ahora!” (“What do we want? Milk with Dignity! When do we want it? Now!”) and “Sí Se Peude” (“Yes, We Can!”).

With protests heating up, Hannaford and Ahold Delhaize have refused to budge, issuing denial after denial of the brutal realities in their supply chain. Hannaford did not respond to Truthout’s repeated requests for an interview.

Increasing numbers of activists are becoming aware of Hannaford’s corporate hypocrisy and are starting to take action to pressure the company to join Milk with Dignity. In one example, 75 investors representing $121 billion in assets under management signed a letter encouraging Hannaford to join the compact. “The health and welfare of the agricultural workforce,” they declared, “is integral to the sustainability of our food system and the agricultural industry, yet agricultural workers face ongoing, egregious human rights abuses.”

In another example, the Pride Center of Vermont rescinded Hannaford’s sponsorship of the 2022 Vermont Pride Parade for its refusal to meet with farmworkers and declined its $18,000 donation. “It’s important for us to work really closely together for the identities that intersect that we both serve,” said the center’s Executive Director Mike Bensel. “It’s important for us to show up and show solidarity.” Farmworkers showed their appreciation of the support by organizing a fundraiser to help make up for the loss of Hannaford’s financial support.

Faced with this cresting wave of struggle and solidarity, Hannaford has doubled down on its public relations campaign, continuing to boast that its hotline is sufficient to resolve any problems on farms in its supply chain. Farm workers will be countering this corporate coverup with a speaking tour throughout the northeast in April 2023.

While the struggle they face is hard, the dairy workers draw courage from their victory over Ben & Jerry’s and the solidarity they have won by coming out of the shadows and fighting for their rights. The region’s labor and social justice movements should join them in upping the ante in the fight for Hannaford to join Milk with Dignity. Que queremos? Leche con dignidad!

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