OSU fights to "Boot the Braids"

Rachel Reiser reports on the "Boot the Braids" campaign against fast-food giant Wendy's at Ohio State University and OSU students' larger fight for justice.

Students march alongside farmworkers in Columbus, Ohio (Smriti Keshari | Coalition of Immokalee Workers)Students march alongside farmworkers in Columbus, Ohio (Smriti Keshari | Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

ON APRIL 7, the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA), Real Food Challenge (RFC) and supporters interrupted an Ohio State University (OSU) Board of Trustees Meeting to demand that OSU cut its contract with Wendy's.

The exiting chant as students were escorted out of the meeting was "Keep your word!"--a reference to OSU's promise to end its contract with Wendy's if the fast-food giant did not sign on as a partner to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' (CIW) Fair Food Program, which would give the farmworkers who harvest tomatoes for Wendy's basic protections in the fields. Fourteen corporations have already signed onto the agreement, making Wendy's one of the last major fast-food corporations in the U.S. to refuse to do so.

This past November, OSU administrators went back on their promise and extended the contract, despite the fact that Wendy's has yet to sign onto the program.

The action took place two weeks after a seven-day student fast, a day-long educational summit, and a "Parade for Human Rights" in which CIW members and supporters from all over the country took the streets of Columbus, carrying colorful signs and flags reading "¡Justicia!", " ¡Dignidad!" and "Boycott Wendy's!"

The actions were meant to send the message to Wendy's, which is headquartered in Columbus, that the dignity of immigrant farmworkers matters more than the company's profits.

The march ended on OSU's campus, where the university's complicity in the issue was brought to the forefront.

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THE CIW's decision to make OSU a primary target of the Boycott Wendy's Campaign is not without precedent. The CIW's first major win, when Taco Bell was successfully pressured to sign onto the Fair Food Program in 2005, was accomplished in large part due to 25 universities cutting their contract with Taco Bell. The contract cuts were won through the persistence of farmworkers organizing to raise awareness and educate students across the country, and sustained campus campaigns organized by their student allies.

Since 1993, when the CIW was founded to organize farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, against the abuses they were facing in the fields, building networks of student power among those in solidarity with the workers has become an important part of the CIW's strategy.

Santiago Perez, a longtime CIW member, explained the history of this tactical shift and the importance student power has to the CIW's current strategy:

When the CIW was first organizing, they would put together things like a 30-day hunger strike, work stoppages with thousands of workers at a time, and a 235-mile march. But within the first 10 years of the CIW's work, they were not able to achieve any kind of dialogue with the growers...It was after these 10 years had passed that an article was published about an agreement that a food corporation had struck with a grower in order to provide them with the cheapest tomatoes possible...It was in that moment that we learned about the way that the system worked.

So that's when the community made the decision to switch from targeting growers to targeting corporations. And we knew that in order to start targeting these corporations...we had to reach more people to create a stronger voice. So that's when the CIW started traveling to other states, to universities, to give presentations about the reality in the fields and what they needed to do to make those changes happen. This ally-ship that was being created at the national level was huge and it did everything in order to bring the first corporation, Taco Bell, to sign an agreement with the CIW.

Students are really important to this strategy. Right now one of the campaigns that we have actively going on is "Boot the Braids" where we have students working to cut their schools' contracts with Wendy's.

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THE BOOT the Braids campaign (a reference to the braids worn by the girl pictured on the Wendy's logo) has been pressuring OSU to cut its contract with Wendy's since 2014. After years of negotiations, the OSU administration finally put a clause in its contract with Wendy's that stated if the demands of the students were not met by the time the contract was up in 2016, OSU would not resign the lease.

But when the contract was up in November, OSU extended the lease, conveniently putting the contract up for renewal in the summer, when students will not be around to organize maximum pressure on the university.

In response to OSU's actions, calls for the immediate cutting of the contract intensified and students and community members decided to go on a hunger strike to draw attention to the demands for justice.

In January, Wendy's released a supplier code of conduct, in an attempt to appease the CIW and its supporters. Though it contained some vague language borrowed from the Fair Food Program, critics say that the code of conduct is nothing but a hollow PR stunt. It ignores most of the CIW's basic demands, including paying an extra penny per pound of tomatoes purchased to give workers slightly higher-than-dismal wages; it fails to provide any protections against abuse in the fields; and it doesn't include required education sessions necessary to inform workers of their rights.

Most importantly, the code of conduct doesn't involve workers in the process at all, and is therefore devoid of any ability for workers to hold Wendy's accountable. The Fair Food Program is the only worker-created and worker-lead accountability system of the CIW, and it is not until Wendy's signs this agreement that the CIW and their supporters say they will stop the campaign.

Nevertheless, the OSU administration cited the code of conduct as "evidence" that Wendy's was "moving in the right direction" in order to justify the decision to extend the contract, saying OSU wanted to "maintain a relationship" with Wendy's. What OSU administrators are really saying, however, is that they value their relationships with corporations more than their relationships with students, and care more about profits than human rights.

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WHILE TIES between large corporations and ever-corporatizing universities are increasingly evident in the neoliberal era, Wendy's and Ohio State have a particularly evident association as two massive pillars of capital accumulation that loom over the Columbus. If Wendy's has a home university, it is OSU. This makes it all the more difficult to win the Boot the Braids campaign in Columbus, but all the more impactful to CIW's overall campaign if OSU capitulates.

Though it may seem like a pipe dream to pressure such a mammoth institution like OSU, the third-largest university in the country, to alter any of its fast-held profit-pumping practices, the wider campus movement offers glimmers of hope for victory.

For example, this past March the OSU Divest campaign, which calls for divestment from corporations complicit in the illegal occupation of Palestine and corporations profiting from the U.S. private prison system, exhibited amazing displays of student organizing and inter-issue solidarity. Though the resolution ultimately lost the undergraduate student government vote, it did so by a stunningly small margin--4,084 votes against versus 3,843 votes for--which is unprecedented in the history of divest at OSU and a victory in itself given what the campaign was up against.

Rachel Metzler, an organizer with Real Food Challenge (RFC) working on the Boot the Braids Campaign said of OSU Divest:

This gave us a lot of hope. All divestment wins feel tied together to me. Getting University money to either have to be withdrawn or pushed in a direction that is away from profit and towards making a statement is amazing...I'm really excited about that divestment campaign and we certainly are in support of it. It's really the same fight just a different set of demands.

The broader student left at OSU has been gaining momentum since the creation of ReclaimOSU, a coalition of several student activist groups including OSU Divest and RFC, that occupied the OSU administration building a year ago. More recently, several OSU activist groups have started a coalition called Students Together Against Trump to fight for a sanctuary campus and organize around issues related to Trump's devastating policy rollouts.

This flurry of student activity at OSU is taking place in the context of a rising sea of action in the wider city of Columbus since Trump's inauguration. Though it will take a lot of hard work and organizing, these displays of resistance and solidarity portend a likely victory for the CIW in Columbus as the power structures of OSU, Wendy's, and the system that produced them continues to crack under the weight of masses of people rising up.