SZCZESNIEWSKI: On tolerating human rights violations

Why Wendy’s shouldn’t be on our meal money

On Saturday, March 18th, Greek row is going to look a lot different. That afternoon, the pounding of bass lines will compete with chants demanding justice and dignity.  Alongside miniskirts and bro tanks, passersby will see the flags and raised fists of migrant farmworkers from Immokalee, Florida as they march towards our local Wendy’s. This is one of the farmworker’s stops on their Return to Human Rights tour. It is the second march targeting Wendy’s since they launched a boycott of the fast food chain last spring with their Worker’s Voices Tour. The workers encourage Vanderbilt students to join them in solidarity, and this is why I will be marching with them.

Behind every tomato served by the Wendy’s fast food chain, with only their own Code of Conduct and no third party holding them accountable, there’s no saying how many men, women, children, and pregnant bellies get sprayed with pesticides, subjected to wage theft, denied water breaks during 12 hours or more of daily toil in the fields, or are faced with other crimes against humanity.

After months of investigating this labor rights catastrophe, a group of students confronted the head of Campus Dining with a petition in spring of 2016. The document bore over 700 signatures and asked Vanderbilt to cut ties with Wendy’s by removing them from the Taste of Nashville Program. They asked that the chain not be invited back as an off-campus dining option until they stopped violating human rights.

For them to prove there is fair treatment of workers in the tomato fields they source from, Wendy’s could join the Fair Food Program (FFP) by signing the Fair Food Agreement (FFA). The FFP acts as a third party between corporations and farmers. By signing on, the corporation pledges to only source from farms that are also part of the program, meaning that they are monitored by Fair Food, which watches out for labor rights infringements.

The movement to Boot the Braids off our campus was sparked by a team of undergraduates after they went on an alternative Alternative Spring Break trip organized by Vanderbilt Food Justice. I was one of these travelers who rented a car, packed plenty of tortillas and peanut butter, and zoomed off to join the Worker’s Voice Tour—a series of marches and actions led by Florida tomato pickers all the way from New York City, through Ohio, Tennessee, and down to Palm Beach, Florida. We were welcomed at universities with active Student Farmworker Alliance clubs, chanted outside of Wendy’s headquarters, and took to the streets outside of Wendy’s Corporation Chairman, Nelson Peltz’s, beach house.

This wasn’t these pickers’ first time around the block. They are part of a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who have been organizing farmworkers since 1993. After a week of immersion with these people and their movement, our cohort was stunned by the power of our privilege as university students to affect the lives of migrant farm workers. The CIW had developed a system for pressuring companies to sign on to the FFA and colleges play an important part.

The CIW realized that the Achilles’ heel of companies was their image. If the field laborers could make a business’s name synonymous with greed and exploitation, it would mean death for their reputation, leading to losses in revenue. All that time and money making a name for themselves would lay wasted in the face of their hypocrisy.

But, how are colleges extra powerful? Well, many are highly respected institutions that stand for the same values the FFA requires in the tomato fields. The same values that companies profit off of when violated behind the scenes, but preached on stage. If universities publicly cut ties with companies because they stand for conflicting values which strip people of their human rights, they land a huge blow on the company image. Customers are likely to think twice about buying from people that the nation’s bastions of education refuse to associate with.

On Vanderbilt’s website, it says “Vanderbilt values most highly intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry, equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors.” If VU cares about equality and possesses an ounce of compassion, it would behoove them to distance themselves from Wendy’s—a company many CIW members have reason to believe cheats their workers, subjects them to unreasonable, dangerous working conditions, and forces entire families into poverty.

If you have doubts whether their strategy bears fruit when put in action, take a look back at the CIW’s first boycott—that of Taco Bell. They campaigned to “Boot the Bell,” marching across the country and leading hunger strikes. Universities were asked to cut ties with Taco Bell in solidarity with their mission, and 17 did. University of Chicago, Duke, and UCLA, to name a few.

Taco Bell folded and signed the FFA, in large part because of the student response to the workers’ call to action. This success started a landslide of companies signing the FFA in fear of suffering the scars this sombrero-wearing Chihuahua walked away with. McDonald’s signed, Walmart signed, Subway, and many more. The only major fast food chain holding out is Wendy’s.

Vanderbilt’s own cafeteria provider, Bon Appetit Management Company, is a participating buyer. Clearly, the school’s off campus eateries aren’t being held to the same standards.

The summer after submitting the petition, the Director of Dining, Camp Howard, asked many questions by emailing and meeting with myself and Tristan Abbott. He had told us he needed time to investigate the situation before taking action, which we could respect. After reaching out to Wendy’s headquarters, he told us he received the scripted response posted on their website: the code of conduct promising that they are adhering to sound labor practices. However, Wendy’s refuses to be inspected for the verity of this claim and it is unclear where their tomatoes come from. The CIW is convinced they’ve outsourced to Mexico, where there are fewer regulations than Florida.

Howard recognized that this was suspect, but before the new semester began, he stopped working here and we students were left hanging. For the 2016-2017 school year, the former director’s duties have been divided among many administrators until a new one gets hired. After much confusion concerning who we should turn to (the man previously specialized with the Taste of Nashville, Walton Barker, had been let go the spring of the petition), we finally secured a meeting with three of the interim directors, Bill Claypool, Suzanne Heron, and Barbara Seiger, and we got a disconcerting answer.

Seiger admitted that Campus Dining would not cut ties with Wendy’s unless there was an economic incentive for Vanderbilt to do so. They expressed that Campus Dining needed places like Wendy’s as an option for lower income students. They said that they refuse to make any political choices – as if their choice isn’t political. And how problematic it is that lower income students have no choice but to buy from a server that plunges others into deeper and deeper monetary ills and literal physical ailments. These concerns don’t even start to examine the many flaws in their reasoning.

Campus Dining is searching for a new Director of Dining and I sat in a meeting for students to describe what kind of person fits the bill. I suggested one who listens to workers and is ready to make moral choices instead of only financial ones. It was received with a snarky response about me wanting another “Brexit,” but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think 700 signatures is insignificant after only a week of tabling. Those are 700 student voices echoing the same message, yet being dismissed.

This semester, students realized many of the lower tier administrators were unaware of the Wendy’s issue we were talking to their superiors about. A delegation was sent to a manager with a document listing the demands of the CIW which 700 student voices support. Josh Palmer, class of 2017, had coalesced this group and asked this manager to disseminate the message.

The boycott itself isn’t what will change Wendy’s’ ways—the economic dent would not be strong enough, and some people are in situations where the need to opt for cheap food but the desire to eat something tasty takes them to Wendy’s. Vanderbilt publicly refusing to do business with Wendy’s until they sign the FFA will be the kind of pressure that brings the CIW, and all the workers and families they represent, victory.

Ania Szcześniewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at anna.k.szczesniewski@vanderbilt.edu.

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