Wendy’s and Its Tomatoes Come Under Fire From Farm Workers’ Campaign

Wendy’s and Its Tomatoes Come Under Fire From Farm Workers’ Campaign

A program created by a group that organizes farm workers has persuaded companies like Walmart and McDonald’s to buy their tomatoes from growers who follow strict labor standards. But high-profile holdouts have threatened to halt the effort’s progress.

Now the group, a nonprofit called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, is raising pressure on one of the most prominent holdouts — Wendy’s — which it sees as an obstacle to expansion.

The Immokalee workers’ initiative, called the Fair Food Program, currently benefits about 35,000 laborers, primarily in Florida. Over the past decade, it has helped transform the state’s tomato industry from one in which wage theft and violence were rampant to an industry with the some of the highest labor standards in American agriculture.

“They’ve already been successful in a measurable way at effectively eliminating modern-day slavery and sexual assault, and greatly reducing harassment,” said Susan L. Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif., who has written a book on the program. “Pay is substantially higher for these people.”

Several experts questioned the value of such reviews, which are often superficial, as well as the suggestion that greenhouse farms provide more humane work environments. “Indoor greenhouse farms are not inherently better in terms of labor conditions,” said Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University who has studied farm labor conditions.

In recent weeks, activists affiliated with the Immokalee workers have stepped up pressure at several universities for Wendy’s to sign on to the Fair Food Program.

The effort borrows its strategy from a campaign that student activists connected to the Immokalee workers waged against Taco Bell. Over nearly four years, supporters on several campuses persuaded officials to either remove the chain from campus or block it from doing business there in the future. In 2005, Taco Bell’s parent company agreed to buy its tomatoes through the program, becoming the first major company to sign on.

As with Taco Bell, Wendy’s is potentially susceptible to protests on college campuses. A significant number of Wendy’s customers are in their teens and 20s, according to Mark Kalinowski, an industry equity analyst.

One recent focus of the campaign against Wendy’s is the University of Michigan, where, according to a statement from the company in late January, its campus franchisee has chosen not to seek to renew its lease.

Wendy’s later said the franchisee made the decision a few years ago. But the announcement came just before the local city council and the university’s student government passed resolutions advocating boycotts of Wendy’s.

Last week, the Board of Aldermen of Carrboro, N.C., a town near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, passed a resolution urging Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program. And the mayor of Gainesville, home to the University of Florida, has placed a similar resolution on the agenda of a city commission meeting this week.

In an interview, the mayor, Lauren Poe, said that he intended the resolution as a way of supporting farm workers, not opposing the university, but that he hoped the school would ban the Wendy’s that operates on campus until the company joins the Fair Food Program.

The actions coincided with a series of demonstrations organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose members are descending on the universities of North Carolina, Michigan and Florida and Ohio State University this week and next.

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