The first memory I have of Wendy’s was in the mid 1970’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My mother told me of a new restaurant in Old Town that served square hamburgers. She loved that they had a salad bar – the old-style salad bar where you had the option of one serving or all you can eat, but everyone cheated. They served a delicious burger with fresh lettuce and tomatoes. It’s a good memory of my mom who was born in the country but called herself a “city girl.” She considered Wendy’s to be “city living.”

More recently in 2013, a friend of mine and local Columbus worker’s rights activist Rubèn Castilla Herrera gave a talk. He held up a tomato and contemplated, how did the tomato in his hand arrive in Columbus? Who picked it? He and his family were pickers of fruit and vegetables in his youth. He was working with an organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their struggle for justice in the fields and their goal for Fair Food. The CIW formed to combat the historical mistreatment of these farm workers in the work place.    

This led to my participation in a protest at the Wendy’s new flagship restaurant in Dublin, Ohio. The action was organized by the Ohio State Student Farmworker Alliance together with the Central Ohio Workers Center. The weather was cold with an accumulation of snow on the ground and a stiff winter wind. With old friends and new acquaintances, we marched together, holding new, hand-painted cardboard signs made at a local church, chanting and marching in a tight circle, and in a festive mood. Among the group was a contingent of farm workers from Immokalee, Florida and members of the CIW.

Easy to distinguish from the hale and hearty Ohioans, the farmworkers were sunburnt and weathered from working the expansive tomato fields of the interior of the Florida peninsula. They came as representatives from the fields, confronting the Wendy’s Corporation and challenging them to join the Fair Food Program initiated by the CIW. (www.ciw-online.org/food-fair-program/)

The Fair Food Program is an agreement that supports two initiatives: a penny more per pound for the tomatoes picked by workers, and compliance to the developed and tested Fair Food Standards. (www.fairfoodstandards.org/)This agreement has been signed by the majority of fast food restaurants. While I marched side by side with the worker’s alliance I couldn’t help but wonder, why is Wendy’s Corporation refusing to join this tested and humane standard, and why are they are so entrenched in refusing to participate or even meet with the farm workers?

The Coalition organized in the early 1990’s in Immokalee, FL. Immokalee (meaning “My Home” in the Mikasuki language) which consists of approximately 23 sq. miles at an elevation of 33 ft. above sea level. The original indigenous inhabitants of the area were the Calusa Indians, who were later occupied by the Seminole first nation.

The first permanent European-American settlement was established in 1872. The early settlers began draining of the swamps to make agriculture the dominant industry.  The original farmworkers were primarily African Americans later to be replaced by migrant workers from Mexico, Central America and Haiti. It was not uncommon for workers to be abused and sometimes beaten by crew bosses, denied water breaks and shade from the sun, verbally harassed, and discriminated against due to age and gender. Women were subjected to verbal and sexual abuse by fellow workers and crew bosses alike. Workers were also stuck in a monetary stagflation for the over 20 years…paid only piece work of 45 to 50 cents per 30-pound bucket for the tomatoes they picked. There was no accounting of their time, no minimum wage and no benefits. Wage theft was also rampant, and more recently unpaid labor in the fields led to the court case regarding modern slavery,U.S. vs. Navarrete in 2008.  The workers had organizational meetings discussing their fate in a local Catholic church in Immokalee, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Eventually, a worker was beaten so badly that his blood was soaked into his shirt. That’s when the workers decided to strike and marched in protest to the crew leader’s home, demanding that he be fired. The crew leader was replaced and the organizers and workers realized that they had some leverage with management. Ask any farm worker if that was the only strike and they would respond “Hay muchas huelgas!’’ (There were many strikes!) Issue by issue, event by event, grievance by grievance, led to a confrontation with crew bosses and, more importantly, farmers. Crew bosses could be fired and replaced by others but the owners remained and it was more and more difficult for farmers to ignore the workers that were absolutely necessary to clear their fields of produce.

State Route 29 (Main Street) runs through the center of town with crosswalks dispersed every couple of blocks due to high pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Rules for crossing the streets are strictly obeyed due to safety but also enforced with citations by the Sheriff patrols for jaywalking and lighting of the bicycles. After sunset, pedestrian and bike traffic appears heavy on Main Street. It is not unusual to see families with strollers.  There is far less automotive traffic. Many of the migrant workers and residents alike can’t afford a vehicle, thereby relying on other transportation.

According to the US Census in 2010, the population of Immokalee is 24,154 inhabitants, though seasonal fluctuation occurs due to the harvest season where large contingents of migrant farm workers arrive for the tomato harvest. The actual number of transient migrants arriving for the harvest is still not easily quantified. Some say the population grows to 40,000, others disagree. The height of the planting and harvest season is between the months of September to May.  Housing is in short supply and expensive, consisting of low quality apartments and single wide mobile home trailers…lots of trailers. The town has no municipal government and is unincorporated and governed by Collier County. Policing is done by the Collier County Sheriff Department.

Immokalee is essentially an international community in the heartland of Florida. Many restaurants and stores cater to the Hispanic population. Restaurants also serve as groceries stores with products from Mexico and Guatemala (70% Hispanic). Creole can be heard spoken by the Haitian farm workers. There is a restaurant called Juanita’s that opens at 4:30am to provide takeout food for the workers in the mornings. It closes at 9:30pm. There are other similar establishments that cater to the same clientele.  American fast food restaurants: McDonalds, Burger King and Subway serve the community. There is also a Wendy’s.  One motel exists for visitors. There is no cinema for the residents. The Seminole tribe has a hotel and casino on the southern outskirts of town.

Throughout the 1990’s the CIW organized and approached farmers about work conditions and compensation.  There were some wage increases and cases exposing physical and sexual abuse in the workplace. It became evident that the farmers were subject to the retail food companies purchasing farm produce in bulk which gave them leverage to purchase the produce at low prices. With that reality check of the farmers’ plight, the wages of the farm workers continued to be stagnant. The benefit of the bargain went in favor of the retail food companies.

In 2001 the Coalition turned their focus toward the retail food companies. After years of diligence, determination and farm worker boycotts, the retail giants came to the table and joined the Fair Food Program. The campaign was consistent in their two major initiatives: retail food companies pay the farmworkers one penny more a pound for the tomatoes harvested and a vow to purchase their produce from farmers that agreed to follow the Fair Food Standards developed by the CIW.  Farmers also agreed to allow a Fair Food Standards Council to audit their farms and permitted the Council to conduct paid education sessions informing the farm workers of their rights under the Fair Food Program. The workers are also informed of their obligations to the farmers. One by one, the retail giants were convinced to comply with the demands of the CIW. Other allies assisted the CIW with their efforts such as faith based organizations (Interfaith Action), students (Student Farmworker Alliance) and other worker’s rights organizations.

Success came between the years of 2005 to 2015 in the signing of working partnerships with retail giants: Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, Bon Appetit, Compass Group, Aramark, Sedexo, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Just Harvest USA and Walmart. In 2015, The Fresh Market and Ahold (parent company of Giant and Stop & Shop) expanded Fair Food tomatoes to hundreds of grocery stores. Currently, over 90% of the farmers in Immokalee are participating in the Fair Food Program, achievements recognized by the United Nations and other human rights observers. The CIW are recipients of dozens of awards including the 2015 Presidential Medal for combating human trafficking. This massive effort led to farm workers enjoying a much safer and more humane work environment with bonuses of $30 - $60 weekly.  The efforts of the Coalition led by farm workers achieved literally the minimum standard in the workplace…no physical or sexual abuse and minimum compensation.

So what is the story behind the Wendy’s refusal to comply? Why would a proven method of workers’ rights and minimum wage compensation cause a burger giant controlled by a billion dollar hedge fund refuse to sign the Fair Food Agreement? Where’s the Beef?

Free Press History: