Farm to Bargaining Table

The farmworker fight against exploitation by fast food

by Mitchell Johnson & Erin West

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published April 7, 2017


“Wendy’s, escucha la voz del pueblo porque nosotros somos el pueblo y nosotros demandamos justicia,” farmworker Lupe Gonzalo announced to a crowd of several hundred people in Columbus, Ohio. Gonzalo is a leader of the Coalition of Imokalee Workers (CIW), one of the largest farm labor organizations in the US. On March 26, the CIW held a march in Columbus to demand attention from Wendy’s, the last major fast-food chain that refuses to meet the coalition’s fair labor demands. We, along with students from universities across the country, attended the march in support of the CIW. Overhead, the sky threatened rain, ponchos were being distributed. The crowd cheered through the first drops of rain when Gonzalo spoke, and then cheered again as a translator repeated her message in English: “Wendy’s: it’s time to listen to the voice of the people, because we are the people and we demand justice.”

Since 2016, the CIW has been targeting Wendy’s, the last major fast food chain not to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program (FFP). The FFP consists of a contract between CIW and food franchises that pledge to source their ingredients from participating farms with humane labor practices and reasonable wages. Since 2011, the CIW has succeeded in pressuring major corporations including Burger King, McDonalds, Chipotle, and Trader Joe’s into signing the agreement, but Wendy’s has yet to come on board.

       The CIW was founded in 1993 by a group of tomato-pickers in Imokalee, Florida—home to the state’s multi-million-dollar tomato growing industry. During its earlier years, the coalition organized community-wide work stoppages and hunger strikes to protest low wages and worker abuse by supervisors on various tomato farms in southern Florida. During the 2000s, the CIW expanded, moving beyond the farms and targeting major corporate buyers, including a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell. Student groups across the United States joined the CIW in the boycott and pushed several universities to cut contracts with Taco Bell. After four years, Taco Bell agreed to extensive demands, which included additional compensation to field workers and a detailed code of conduct that addressed workplace concerns such as sexual assault in the field. 

The CIW’s successful campaign garnered national attention and significantly grew the coalition’s membership. It also led to the founding of Student/Farmworker Alliance groups, which became integral to the CIW’s future organizing efforts. Building off the Taco Bell campaign, the CIW pushed for an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to create and implement the Fair Food Program. The Coalition has since won recognition from major governmental bodies including the UN and the White House. The FFP, which has been implemented on 90 percent of southern Florida’s tomato farms, was heralded in the New York Times as “the best workplace-monitoring program... in the US.”




Despite the CIW’s track record in getting several powerful corporations to comply with worker demands, the coalition’s success has stalled in the recent Wendy’s campaign. In addition to not signing the FFP, the chain stopped purchasing tomatoes from Florida entirely and began sourcing from Mexico. The CIW notes that declining to sign on to the FFP allows Wendy’s to spend less on tomatoes than their fast-food competitors, who have signed the agreement. 

In fall 2016, the Wendy’s marketing department published a post on their blog, The Square Deal, directly addressing the CIW campaign: “Why does CIW have a problem with Wendy’s? Because we buy a lot of tomatoes for which they don’t receive any money.” The post reflects prior attempts by Wendy’s to frame the CIW as self-serving and purely financially-motivated. 

Wendy’s issue is that the agreement would require them to, in their words, “pay another company’s employees.” The CIW, however, sees buyers like Wendy’s as integrally connected to workers at the bottom of the supply chain—even if growers, not fast-food companies, directly employ farmworkers. Because large food giants buy in massive quantities, they wield significant influence on the wholesale prices of produce and subsequently, on farmworker wages. The CIW demands that these same corporations be responsible for supplementing the depressed wages they help create. The reason why the CIW negotiates with corporate buyers instead of their direct employers, growers, is that federal law prohibits agricultural workers from formal unionization. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 provided protections for workers to form unions but excepted, “any individual employed as an agricultural laborer.” This exemption, which also includes domestic workers, has been criticized on the grounds that these two labor sectors have roots in slavery and are still primarily comprised of workers of color. 

In other sectors, the CIW’s grievances would be raised to direct employers. Due to the NLRA restriction, however, the CIW negotiates further up the supply chain. The FFP is a unique solution to the CIW’s position as a labor rights group. The program includes multiple stipulations, the most significant being a one-cent-per-pound premium that fast food companies pay on their tomatoes, which, once compounded, results in increased farmworker wages. The New York Times estimated that this would bring an average farmworker’s wage from $10,000 a year to $17,000 a year—a dramatic increase, yet still well below a livable wage. The FFP also requires that buyers hold growers accountable to fair labor conditions such as providing shade tents, forming a worker-led health and safety committee, and accurately counting workers’ hours. 

The work of implementing the FFP is largely done by workers themselves. Among other requirements, farmworkers lead the FFP’s mandated review boards, which ensure that growers abide by the agreement. This reflects the CIW’s larger principle of centering workers’ leadership in their organization, as they believe that “workers are the only actors in the supply chain with a vital and abiding interest in seeing their rights effectively monitored and enforced.”




Wendy’s markets itself as socially responsible despite ignoring worker demands. In March 2017, the company released the first of a new video series called, “Profiles in Quality: From Start to Fresh” which highlights their sourcing from small, local growers. “Wendy’s practiced the farm-to-table model before the term even existed,” the intro to the video states. However, it focuses only on a select ingredient, lettuce, and one location, distracting from a more complete picture of their vast and varied business practices—both ethical and unethical ones. Amongst the video’s lush dew-covered lettuce fields (sourced from two overall-clad brothers in California), tomatoes are noticeably absent.

With this pointed ad campaign, Wendy’s joins other major fast food chains in a marketing trend of the past several years: emphasizing food quality, freshness, and selectively-ethical sourcing for specific ingredients—something Slate termed “The Fresh Wars” in 2013. ‘Freshness,’ in these ads, becomes a catch-all word, implying quality food ingredients while conjuring an image of the wholesome, local farm—free from the labor violations of industrial agriculture. These efforts to appear socially-responsible are a shallow cooptation of the work that labor, environmental, and other organizing groups have done for years to combat structural injustice wrought by corporations. As corporations attempt to entice consumers with ‘feel-good’ marketing, they assuage concerns about quality food production while actively masking labor injustices. 

The CIW has a different understanding of ethical consumption: “As the women and men who harvest tomatoes for multi-billion dollar corporations like Wendy’s,” they state in a press release, “we believe ‘quality’ is not simply measured by the taste of a piece of fruit by also buy the guarantee of dignity and fundamental human rights for those of us who pick it.” 

If “freshness” advertising co-opts messaging from labor-rights groups, “brand busting,” a staple tactic of the CIW, is the opposite: many of their campaigns mobilize an easily-recognizable corporate logo in order to “twist it into a surprising or different form,” says CIW organizer Lucas Benitez in an article for Civil Eats. The Taco Bell boycott featured the company’s ubiquitous bell logo, and adapted the corporation’s most famous slogan into the simple but effective “yo no quiero Taco Bell.” For the Wendy’s campaign, Wendy’s red braids have been repurposed as a logo for the boycott—they are plastered on signs, posters, and hats that read “Boycott Wendy’s.” One such sign, in the company’s signature font, reads: “Wendy’s: Old-fashioned Exploitation.” 




During the march, as people were buffeted by rain, an organizer yelled out to the crowd. “Estan mojados?! Estan cansados?!” Are you wet? Are you tired? “Qué es eso?!” the group responded in unison. What is that?

With the march in Columbus, farmworkers in the CIW made themselves visible, refusing to allow Wendy’s to ignore their labor. “For every partner in the Program,” the CIW states on their website, “The FFP is hard work. Workers have spent the past fifteen years tirelessly campaigning with consumers, not to mention designing, building, and enforcing the Program itself, and serve as the frontline monitors to their own rights, day in and day out.” Julia de la Cruz, a worker and organizer with the CIW, told the Independent she’s been doing this for over eight years, attending countless marches, protests, and parades. 

Behind public events like the march are other organizing efforts that, while often unrecognized, are integral to the organization’s success and longevity. For two days before the Columbus action, CIW members, supporters, activists, and students gathered in a local church to host workshops, meetings, and share organizing tactics. The purpose of this conference was partly to prepare for the march, but also to strengthen the CIW’s ties outside the organization. To this effect, the weekend emphasized coalition and community building. Workshops topics ranged from a history of capitalist food production, to indigenous land rights, to mass incarceration. The CIW works to ensure that everyone involved in its actions are well-educated on the intersectional nature of workers’ rights. Pamela Escalante, a leader with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, told the Independent that after the conferences, “you really know why you’re hitting the streets.”

Rubén Castilla Herrera, an immigrant rights organizer with the Columbus-based Ohio Workers Center, led a workshop at the conference about expanding the definition of sanctuary. He stressed the importance of the kind of intersectional organizing embodied by the CIW: “[The CIW] represents a cross-section of [various] communities: women, the queer community, environmental issues, and workers.” He told the Independent that effective coalition-building must be forged in personal connection: “First, we start with ourselves. How am I a sanctuary space, how are we a sanctuary space? How is my home, my community, and then my city?” Escalante echoed this sentiment as a major reason she got involved with the CIW. “They don’t coalition-build unless its sincere,” she mentioned, explaining that in her personal relationships with members of the CIW, she has always felt welcomed as a queer woman. 

Both Herrera and Escalante’s experience with the CIW reflect the organization’s larger philosophy of welcoming allies while nevertheless recognizing difference within coalitions. The organization chooses to intentionally center the voices of the workers most affected by the injustices they fight. “We all know that this struggle is about much more than one person,” said Gonzalo on the day of the march. “All of the change, all of the improvements we have won, have come because of the involvement of many people, first and foremost the workers of Immokalee.” 

The march ended on the Ohio State University campus, after crossing town and briefly pausing to demonstrate in front of a Wendy’s franchise. As the clouds dissipated, people took off their soaked sweatshirts and laid them out to dry in the sun. Soon, the busses of college students and other allies left Columbus, and the CIW moved on to Tampa, Florida, where they concluded this stage of the Wendy’s campaign on March 31. The protest, as well as the weekend of organizing, did not result in a tangible victory, but according to organizers, it was an important step in the continuation of the CIW’s struggle. 

“It doesn’t happen overnight. We wish it would,” CIW organizer Iliana Roque Gonzalez told the Independent after the march. She said she felt frustrated the organization was forced to continue expending resources on Wendy’s, rather than worker-centered programs. Until Wendy’s agrees to their terms, however, Iliana and other CIW members will continue to work on this campaign. “We’re not asking for anything extraordinary. We just want the workers—the hands that pick our food, to be treated fairly.” 




The CIW has long garnered support by carving out space for joy. Julia de la Cruz told the Independent she first got involved because of how much she enjoyed the Saturday night film screenings the organization hosted at her workplace in Florida. With this practice, the CIW embodies another mode of resistance. It’s their most simple, but perhaps most effective tactic: communal celebration.

The night before the march, CIW workers, families, and allies gathered in the church. This time, not to deliberate tactics or rehearse plans once more, but to dance. That evening, reminiscent of the original work stoppages led by fieldworkers in Florida, CIW leaders declared a break from formal organizing. Groups of children filtered back inside, exhausted from improvised baseball on the church lawn. A guitar ensemble that had been practicing all afternoon rushed to the stage. As plates were cleared from the collective dinner, the band began to strum a mix of traditional Mexican folk and their protest-inspired adaptations. 

J-U-S/ J-U-S-T-I-C-E/ is what we want/ Justice in Imokalee! 


MITCHELL JOHNSON AND ERIN WEST B’18.5 have beef with Wendy’s.