Using an exciting new tactic to push for worker’s rights from within, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) attended the annual Wendy’s shareholder meeting in Dublin, Ohio last week. They were joined by over 25 allies, including UUSC. The group represented over half of all the shareholders in the room, and they used their presence to turn up the pressure on Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program (FFP or Program). Outside the meeting, over 60 allied-organizations rallied to urge the company to support workers’ rights and economic justice at Wendy’s headquarters.

Throughout the Q&A session, moderated by the Chairman of the Board Nelson Peltz, CIW and its allies shared statements and posed hard-hitting questions to Wendy’s executives about their refusal to join the FFP. The Program would ensure humane wages and working conditions for the farmworkers who supply their produce to Wendy’s, at the cost of an additional cent per pound of tomatoes, which is used to raise wages for the farmworkers. The penny is distributed by the corporations to the growers, who then directly distribute it the farmworkers in the form of a line-item bonus.

CIW co-founder Lucas Benitez recounted how the Program had improved conditions for him personally, as well as hundreds of Florida farmworkers.

“I have been a farmworker since I was 17-years-old.  I have seen, up close, the two worlds – the one which we are coming from, and the one we’re in today thanks to the power of the corporations that are working together with us. Among them are Wendy’s principal competitors, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Thanks to this market power, we are now eliminating abuses that have been endemic in the U.S. agriculture industry. Forced labor, modern-day slavery, the sexual harassment that has been the bread of every day for the millions of farmworker women who labor in the fields.”

Benitez also extended an invitation to Wendy’s executives to come to Immokalee and visit an FFP-certified farm to see the impact that the Program has on the industry firsthand.

Wendy’s Way: Being on the Defensive

Throughout the meeting, Wendy’s took a defensive, and at times combative, approach to the comments and questions from CIW and its allies. During her presentation on the Wendy’s Code of Conduct, which took place before the Q&A, Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito recognized the group’s presence, remarking, “It’s not pleasant for us to see our brand criticized on a regular basis.”

Esposito also misrepresented the FFP, incorrectly claiming that CIW’s aim is to get financial contributions from Wendy’s. Contrary to Esposito’s assertion, the penny more per pound paid as part of the Program goes directly to the suppliers, who pay the farmworkers – CIW never sees or handles the funds.

Esposito was not the only executive feeling the pressure. Chairman Peltz was also on the defensive. In fact, before the meeting, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane of T’ruah sent a letter, signed by over 200 fellow rabbis, requesting to meet with Peltz and discuss the FFP. During the Q&A Kirzane followed up on his request, to which Peltz replied pointedly: “If it’s about fair food, it isn’t going to happen.”

Once it became apparent that CIW and its allies had taken over the Q&A, a frustrated Peltz requested that there be no more questions on the FFP. When the questions kept coming, Peltz ended the meeting, leaving CIW’s questions unanswered and unaddressed.

A Key Question Remains

Wendy’s executives were clearly flustered by the strong support for the Program inside and outside of the building. However, Wendy’s continues to resist the call to join the FFP.

How does Wendy’s justify this refusal? They claim that their supplier code of conduct offers sufficient, and has even strengthened, human rights and labor protections for their suppliers. This rationale is incredibly misleading, as Wendy’s supplier code of conduct is simply guidance with little consequence for non-compliance and does not give workers a voice. The FPP’s protections, on the other hand, include mandatory prohibitions against child labor, physical violence, and sexual harassment.

Wendy’s talks frequently about how they “create joy and opportunity through food, family, and community.” But Wendy’s refusal to join the FFP makes it clear that this family and community does not include the farmworkers who handpick their produce. Indeed, Wendy’s has a solution to the issue of farmworker poverty and exploitation right in front of it and the opportunity to lift an entire industry up.

With this in mind, a key question remains: How long will it take for Wendy’s to stand by its purported values and end the abuse of its workers by joining the Fair Food Program?Now is the time for us to keep the pressure on Wendy’s. Join CIW and UUSC as they continue their call for justice by pledging to boycott Wendy’s, organizing a protest, or by sending postcards explaining why you’re boycotting to Wendy’s headquarters. Also, keep checking UUSC’s website for more updates and ways to be involved.