MAY 29, 2018   Dark-skinned men and women in green shirts at a demonstration marching to the left one holding a sign saying Penniless because of and two others holding big rust colored buckets

Five years ago, five activists and I set up a protest action at the Wendy’s restaurant located on South High Street in Columbus, Ohio. We lined up on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant with a 30-foot-long banner that stated, “Wendy’s Stop the Exploitation, Join the Fair Food Program.”

Customers did not turn away or stop driving into the parking lot, but when they sat at the outdoor dining area, they would shout out, “What’s wrong with Wendy’s?”

That’s the problem: not many people know what’s wrong with Wendy’s. It is necessary to reiterate the reason that larger and larger groups of farm workers and consumers demand that Wendy’s join the Fair Food Program.

Collaborating as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) the farm workers’ demands are simple: to be compensated just one penny more per pound for tomatoes picked, and for the companies to purchase from participating farms that adhere to the Fair Food Standards (FFS).

The FFS is more than a one-penny-per-pound bonus for the farm workers harvesting the tomatoes. The FFS outlines a core of basic workers’ rights, including the prohibition of physical and sexual abuse, wage theft, and reasonable demands of water, shade, respect and human rights in the fields;

Farm workers are asking Wendy’s customers to boycott the “family style” fast food restaurant.  Wendy’s was named after the daughter of the founder, Dave Thomas. His image of what a family company should be is what is etched in the minds of most consumers: Dave Thomas, “Do the Right Thing.” Dave Thomas, “Treat people with respect.” Dave Thomas, “Give everyone a chance to have a piece of the pie. If the pie's not big enough, make a bigger pie.”

Perhaps most memorably, people think of Dave Thomas as the philanthropist that advocated for adoption, and as an infant was adopted himself. Unfortunately, Dave Thomas passed away in early 2002. Were he alive today, Dave Thomas would certainly have taken this issue off his desk and be proud to be a participant of the Fair Food Program. At least that is what many in Columbus believe.

Wendy’s is not a family company anymore. It is managed and controlled by a multibillion dollar asset management firm, Trian Partners based in New York City, whose main motivation is shareholder profit above all, even human, costs.

Throughout the struggle for farm worker justice, many strikes have been held to protest, remove poor crew bosses, and demand basic amenities to accommodate workers in the fields.  The Coalition has engaged in only two boycotts, first against Taco Bell, and more than ten years later, Wendy’s.

Boycotts are a direct appeal to the public to cease commercial activity with a business.   After ten years of appealing to Wendy’s corporate leadership, in 2015 the CIW discovered that Wendy’s decided to quit purchasing their tomatoes from Florida growers. Wendy’s corporate management decided to purchase from Bioparques de Occidente, a Mexican grower. The abrupt and unexplained change in Wendy’s purchasing signaled to the CIW leadership that a boycott was necessary to advance their struggle.

The contrast in Wendy’s changing from American growers to a Mexican grower demonstrates a step in the wrong direction in regard to human rights in the tomato fields.  Andrew Cockburn wrote in the Harper’s blog “Trumps Tomatoes” https://harpers.org/blog/2016/03/trumps-tomatoes/that Wendy’s could have purchased from Canada, but their price is about three times higher than the product from Mexico. They chose Mexico to avoid the penny-per-pound increase to the Florida farm workers, preferring that their suppliers pay workers 20% of what American migrant workers earn… an Orwellian reaction to American farm workers.

Many of the farm workers in Immokalee have migrated from the work camps in Mexico. Their description of the Mexican fields is “muy mal,” very bad and inhumane. This was well-documented in an investigative report by Richard Marosi writing for the LA Times, “Product of Mexico”, a four-part series. http://graphics.latimes.com/product-of-mexico-camps/ Child labor is illegal but not enforced, and due to the $8-$10 per day wage, some families can’t survive without both parents and children working.

In Mexico babies tended in the fields in not uncommon. Barbed wired fences keep employees from running away and payment to workers is held to guarantee payment to the company stores. The compounds are patrolled with guards and escapees are tracked and returned against their wills. Housing is remedial and basically inhumane. It is described as modern-day slavery.  Workers have stated that the product is treated with much more respect than the people.

Freelance journalist Evan Davis captured a discussion in 2013 between advocates and farm workers with Wendy’s spokesperson Bob Bertini.  Mr. Bertini received 156,000 signatures at their flagship restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. The petition asked that Wendy’s join the Fair Food Program.

When asked why Wendy’s would not sit down and talk about participating in the program, Mr. Bertini stated that “all of our suppliers in Florida have already signed the Fair Food Agreement and deal with all the regulations dealing with treatment of workers and so forth.”

When confronted with the fact that Wendy’s is enjoying the benefit of the labor but not paying the additional penny-per-pound to the workers, Mr. Bertini replied, “We already pay a premium for the tomatoes and we expect our suppliers to pass that on to their employees. Those employees do not work for us.”

Farm worker and CIW organizer Santiago Perez asked Mr. Bertini if Wendy’s would continue to buy from suppliers that practiced modern day slavery.  Mr. Bertini stated “Slavery in any form is abhorrent and we do not support that in any way, in any form period.” He also added “If slavery exists in any condition, then the authorities should prosecute and fully pursue it. It is only right. It’s the right thing to do and we would support that.”

Bertini’s talking points don’t add up. Wendy’s is the only holdout of the fast food restaurants. They refuse to join the Fair Food program. They claim to only purchase from FFP compliant growers, but purchase from Mexico.  They refuse to pay the single penny more per pound to comply with the agreement but lack an audit trail to support their claims. To be certain, there is no Fair Food Program in Mexico.

The fact is that Wendy’s is not part of the Fair Food Program.  Wendy’s purchases from growers in Mexico that enslave and abduct employees and families. Bluntly put, Wendy’s has no regard for workers in the food supply chain. They hoard the penny-per-pound and taint their fruit with the pains and misery of low wage slavery. The Wendy’s leadership serves the public a corporate burger, and since it is made-to-order…they can add an extra tomato slice of slavery.

The CIW will be in Columbus on June 5, 2018 to speak at the Wendy’s shareholder meeting. Follow and join the action. For more information go to www.boycott-wendys.org/

Free Press History: