“Si Se Puede!” (Yes we can!) were the exclamations resounding outside of Ben and Jerry’s scoop shack in downtown Burlington, Vermont on Tuesday, October 3, 2017. After years of organizing and escalation, Vermont dairy farm workers can finally taste the sweet victory of fair ice cream. “This is a program that gives the workers a seat at the table, that provides dignity and a real voice,” CEO Jostein Solheim said, standing with a group of dairy farm workers. Ben and Jerry’s leads the way to become the first company to ever formally enter into the “Milk with Dignity” program.
In the words of former farmworker and Migrant Justice organizer Enrique Balcazar, it is a “historic moment” marking a “new day in dairy, a new day for the human rights of farm workers.” He later stated in an interview, that “until this victory, there was no existing program in the dairy industry created by workers that brought real change.”
Migrant Justice began organizing Vermont farm workers in 2010 after the death of the young dairy farm worker, José Obeth Santiz Cruz, who was fatally killed by a mechanized gutter scraper that pulled him in and strangled him in his own clothes. This shocking reality led to the production of a documentary film called Silent Voices, inspiring mobilization amongst the dairy workers and organizers.
After conducting a survey of 172 of Vermont’s dairy farm workers in 2014, the results led to the launch of the Milk with Dignity Campaign. Organizers found that roughly 40% of Vermont farm workers are paid below minimum wage ($8.73) and do not have a day off. Furthermore, they work an average of 60-80 hours per week. The results were shocking and Migrant Justice decided to do something about it.
Following the model of successful Campaign for Fair Food, initiated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, Migrant Justice farm workers targeted corporations who bought the dairy products. From conversations with Florida farmworkers, they adopted the core tenants of the Fair Food Program to the context of the Vermont dairy farms. The farmworkers are asking for adherence to basic human rights through an adaption of the five essential elements of the Fair Food Program:
- Farmworker-Authored Code of Conduct: farmworkers’ definition of the human right to work with dignity and fair housing;
- Farmworker Education: Guarantees workers’ the right to receive education about their rights under the Code of Conduct;
- Third Party Monitoring Body: Monitors, enforces and audits farmer compliance with Code of Conduct; receives worker complaints and addresses grievances; creates improvement plans to address violations; enforces consequences for non-compliance
- Economic relief: Participating corporations restore economic justice in the supply chain paying an extra premium directly to both farmworkers AND farmers
- Legally-binding Agreements: Participating Corporations (Ben & Jerry’s) sign a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under the law
These principles and tenants are grounded in a Worker Driven Social Responsibility (WSR) platform that offers an alternative to the standard Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Rather than the corporation defining “social responsibility,” this alternative allows for workers to have a voice in outlining responsible and sustainable corporate behaviors.
Balcazar explains, “We must empower the workers to tell their own stories about what’s happening in their workplaces and in their living situations. The most important point is that the workers should define for themselves what they want.” In Florida, the model has transformed the lives of thousands of farmworkers, redistributing some of that concentrated corporate power.
After designing the Milk with Dignity Program, the farm workers set their eyes on one of the largest purchasers of Vermont milk, Ben and Jerry’s. Due to the corporations espoused values of sustainability and social justice, Migrant Justice thought it would only be appropriate to invite Ben and Jerry’s to lead the industry in sustainable practices.
On June 19, 2015, less than a year after the Milk with Dignity campaign was officially launched, Ben and Jerry’s promised to enter into conversations to implement the Milk with Dignity program. The campaign proved that consumers and workers, together, hold the power to make significant change.
However, despite their promise, Ben & Jerry’s did not initially follow through with action. After over a year of negotiations without results, Migrant Justice went to the consumers.
As a result, in April 2017, ice cream eaters made over 400 calls to Ben and Jerry’s in one day, urging the company to sign on to the Milk with Dignity Program. In May, more than 4,000 emails were sent to Ben in Jerry’s in a two-day span. Then, in June, Migrant Justice hosted at 13-mile historic march through Vermont, ending at Ben and Jerry’s Waterbury factory, demanding the corporation to take action.
And the escalation kept rising. Migrant Justice just rounded out their “Human Rights Can’t Wait” speaking tour along the East Coast to continue to bring awareness to the injustices they face on a daily basis. The energy surrounding the tour was planned to culminate on October 5, 2017, for the Milk with Dignity National Day of Action at Scoop Shacks all over the country.
Only three days before the planned National Day of Action, Ben and Jerry’s came to the table to sign the agreement, and Migrant Justice happily called off actions planned all over the United States.
Campaigns such as the Fair Food Program and the Milk with Dignity Program bridge the gap between consumers and producers, against the corporations continuously pushing the two farther apart. The Worker Driver Social Responsibility model puts pressure on the chasm to bring the two sides closer together. “We’re the passengers and Ben and Jerry’s, they’re the drivers…” said one speaker during their Boston College visit, “…but we want to be the drivers.”
All across the country, students, workers, and consumers have joined their voices together to ask for the basic human rights of farmworkers in the U.S. to be respected. The real power is at the beginning and end of the supply chain. It is a matter of taking that power back from the corporations who have pushed so hard to keep the two far apart.
Despite this landmark victory, Migrant Justice will not stop now. In an interview Balcazar outlined their determination, “This is the first agreement of its kind in the dairy industry. Ben & Jerry’s has about 85 farms in Vermont and a few in New York, but 90 percent are in Vermont. But in Vermont, they are about 800 farms. So we are going to continue to organize and to tell our stories until all the farms sign up with the Milk with Dignity program.”
About the Author: Allison Kaika began her internship with Grassroots in September 2017, after spending the summer in DC with the National Family Farm Coalition. She is currently an undergraduate at Boston College majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Food Systems. Upon graduation, Allison hopes to participate in building a more equitable and just food system for all people.