Farm workers, their families, and Migrant Justice organizers celebrate historic Ben & Jerry’s agreement.
By David Sheridan
At a time in our country when immigrants fear deportation and racism is resurgent, immigrant Latino farm workers in Vermont have won a victory that gives everyone who believes in the power of collective action reason to cheer.
Migrant Justice (Justicia Migrante), which received this year’s NEA César Chávez Human and Civil Rights Award, has reached an historic agreement with Ben & Jerry’s. The big ice-cream maker will require its milk suppliers to provide dairy farm workers with humane working and housing conditions as well a living wage.
“NEA’s solidarity was crucial to our winning this victory,” says Migrant Justice organizer Will Lambek. Says Martha Allen, President of NEA-Vermont, “We teach the children of these farm workers, and it was important to us that we help their families.”
“The workers’ persistence and courage made us proud,” adds Allen. “They stood up for themselves, even though many of the them risked being arrested by I.C.E—and in fact, some were jailed.” At the 2017 NEA Representative Assembly (RA) in Boston, NEA-Vermont and the Massachusetts Teachers Association teamed up to raise $6,000 from RA delegates to pay the bail of Migrant Justice protesters who had been imprisoned by I.C.E.
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The seeds of Migrant Justice were planted in 2009 after a young dairy worker named José Obeth Santiz Cruz was pulled into a mechanized gutter scraper and strangled to death by his own clothing. This tragedy inspired the production of the documentary film Silenced Voices and led to the formation of a solidarity collective to partner with farmworkers to help them stand up for themselves.
Under the banner of “Milk With Dignity,” Migrant Justice and the migrant farm laborers from Mexico and Central American waged a three-year campaign that included community-outreach, coalition-building, protesting at scoop shops, marching, and lobbying in order to get Ben & Jerry’s to agree.
“As individual workers, we didn’t stand a chance,” says former dairy farm worker turned organizer Enrique Balcazar. “All we could do was endure the long hours, the unsafe working conditions, the low pay, and the miserable living facilities in order to support our families. We had to come together and organize.”
The Vermont Labor Center, a grassroots social justice organization, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida provided invaluable support to the Milk With Dignity campaign. So did the Vermont faith community. “Behold the power of collective action,” said one of Migrant Justice’s supporters from that community.
Under the agreement with Ben & Jerry’s, the dairy farm workers will earn at least the state minimum wage of $10 an hour—they have been earning less than half that. They will be guaranteed at least eight consecutive hours of rest between shifts, and housing accommodations will include one bed per worker and access to electricity and running water. The agreement requires Ben & Jerry’s to buy milk from farms that adhere to these standards.
The Ben & Jerry’s agreement is patterned after one forged by CIW between retailers and farm workers in Florida’s tomato industry. In that instance, Subway, Walmart, Whole Foods and other companies committed to paying an extra 1 to 4 cents per pound of tomatoes and to buy only from suppliers who adhered to agreed upon labor standards. Likewise, Ben & Jerry’s is committed to paying a premium to milk producers who comply with the agreement. Now it will be up to the workers and Migrant Justice to ensure that milk producers comply with the agreement.