Face to face with the Wendy's bosses

Pranav Jani, a longtime socialist activist and professor at Ohio State University, tells what happened at a farmworkers' protest outside and inside the annual shareholders meeting for fast-food giant Wendy's--and considers what's next in the struggle for justice.

Supporters of the farmworkers' campaign march outside a Wendy's shareholders meetingSupporters of the farmworkers' campaign march outside a Wendy's shareholders meeting

"HE SIDO un trabajador agrícola desde que tenía 17 años." ("I have been a farmworker since I was 17 years old.")

The voice of Lucas Benitez, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), is always powerful to hear, no matter what the setting.

But on May 23, Benitez's voice rang out in a place that has been hostile to farmworkers' rights--the annual shareholders meeting for Wendy's, held at the fast-food giant's headquarters in Dublin, Ohio.

As the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF) reported, Benitez and 26 other supporters, including myself, went into the meeting to confront Wendy's corporate leadership about its refusal to join the Fair Food Program (FFP) established by the CIW and allies as a monitoring program to prevent abuse of farmworkers by the fast-food industry.

More than 60 protesters led a vigorous picket in support outside the meeting, urging people to boycott Wendy's, support the farmworkers and fight for immigrant justice. Their actions forced Wendy's Director of Corporate Communications Heidi Schauer to come out and speak with CIW members and their allies, suggesting that Wendy's is entering damage-control mode.

The CIW is calling on Wendy's to follow the example of other fast-food giants and agree to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes to raise workers' wages and only buy from fields where workers' rights are respected. Wendy's has defied this simple call for justice and instead tried to weather the storm of criticism by releasing a new "Wendy's Supplier Code of Conduct" that has no effective enforcement mechanism.

On May 23, the farmworkers movement gained from the actions outside and inside Wendy's headquarters in three ways.

We forced corporate officials to more specifically articulate the content of supplier code of conduct" so that we can investigate it further and sharpen our critique of it. We learned how organized we can be, mobilizing and uniting a diverse group of people to take bold action around a specific goal. And we gained more insight into what drives Wendy's and other corporations to take such a firm stand against workers' movements, and the challenges this poses for us.

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THE SIZE and diversity of the direct actions organized this year show the powerful unity that has been forged over the course of the CIW's campaign.

The protesters inside and outside the shareholders meeting represented national and local Protestant, Catholic and Jewish institutions, community and social justice groups, and the "Boot the Braids" campus campaigns at the Ohio State University, University of Michigan and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

I was asked to participate as a faculty supporter of the campaign at Ohio State led by Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA) and Real Food OSU--a growing movement that includes student members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

The planning of the action was superb and our execution flawless--as it needed to be to challenge Wendy's bosses in their own house. The 27 of us went in separately and incognito, wearing business-friendly dress and entering as proxy representatives of supportive Wendy's shareholders.

When I went into the conference center, a cop at the door joked to me and a shareholder that Wendy's had ordered "entertainment"--referring to the sounds of the protesters chanting outside. They had no idea of the real "entertainment" that was coming up, I thought.

CIW supporters have been entering these annual meetings for a few years, and Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito opened her "Corporate Social Responsibility" update saying, "We know you are here." But it was clear they had no idea of the scale of this action.

During the question-and-answer period, our well-prepared speakers came to the mic and hammered away at Wendy's narrative of "corporate social responsibility," exposing the Wendy's Supplier Code of Conduct for its lack of independence and transparency.

Board Chair Nelson Peltz finally shut down the meeting after our 11th speaker, and then all 27 of us held up "Boycott Wendy's" placards, met at the back of the hall and marched out together to join our comrades.

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AS ACTIVISTS and organizers, we have many experiences protesting the policies of the 1 Percent. We sometimes even get a chance to speak directly to their political representatives in the form of local and national Republican and Democratic Party politicians.

But it's rare that we get to tell the capitalist class, face to face, what we think of their unjust and exploitative policies.

Those lined up against us on the stage at Wendy's headquarters included: Todd A. Penegor, president and CEO, with total compensation of $5,117,784 in 2016; Gunther Plosch, CFO, with total compensation of $2,265,264 in 2016; and Nelson Peltz, chairman of the board, with a net worth of $1.53 billion that puts him among the richest people in the U.S.

These aren't people who are interested in listening to farmworkers, Wendy's employees or solidarity activists. But because we were well-prepared and flexible enough to ask relevant follow-up questions and make comments, we created an environment in which they couldn't simply ignore us.

And sometimes we even got them to crack and show their cards.

I focused on the ways in which the FFP's monitoring process is superior to Wendy's Code of Conduct: the code is mandatory for all growers, and farmworkers themselves participate actively in shaping the code.

You can find out more by reading law professor James J. Brudney's April letter to OSU's Lantern newspaper and the CIW's critique of the Wendy's Code.

Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito claimed that Wendy's was already a defender of workers' rights, and, repeating an argument she has made since October 2016, falsely suggested that Fair Food Program fees would go into the coffers of the CIW, a claim that the AFF's Patricia Cipollitti easily refuted.

When we asked whether Wendy's could identify third-party independent monitors that made their Code of Conduct enforceable, as they claimed, they refused to name any--raising basic questions about their transparency and credibility.

Peltz tried a number of times to quiet our side, saying snarkily, "Please, please, don't make [your questions] about this Fair Food stuff. We've heard this over and over again, ad nauseum." Refusing to meet with members of the human rights group T'ruah, which represents 1,000 rabbis, Peltz rudely told their representative, "I have plenty of rabbis in my life."

By the end of the meeting, the corporate doublespeak was plain to all. Penegor brushed off the question of whether the boycott was hurting Wendy's bottom line, resorting to wartime language: Wendy's would continue to win the "hearts and minds of people."

Apparently forgetting Wendy's fuzzy p.r. image of "food, family and community" that he repeated during his presentation, Penegor said people were free to make fast-food choices. After all, "[t]here's a huge share of stomachs" out there, and Wendy's did not need to appeal to everyone.

A larger "share of stomachs"--the beloved consumer reduced to nothing but a body organ for fast-food companies to fight over. A Marxist couldn't have made a better argument for what drives Wendy's and the 1 Percent--and the disdain they have for workers, as both producers and consumers.

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DURING THE course of the meeting, Wendy's executives revealed the many problems with the company's Supplier Code of Conduct.

The research we do on how the Wendy's code works in practice will be crucial, because universities that claim to stand by human rights will decide whether to renew the company's contracts based on the code.

For instance, Ohio State University sent an e-mail a few days ago to Amanda Ferguson, an SFA leader and ISO organizer, telling her that OSU will extend its contract with Wendy's for three years because they are satisfied with Wendy's claims that "that workers picking tomatoes [for Wendy's suppliers] are doing so under safe and appropriate conditions."

As Rachel Rieser pointed out in a recent Socialist Worker article on the "Boot the Braids" campaign at OSU, campus campaigns were central to getting Taco Bell to join the FFP in 2005.

The OSU contract renewal, representing yet another betrayal of the administration in relation to student and worker voices, is a crucial obstacle to overcome. A sharper critique of Wendy's Code of Conduct will be a key weapon in this struggle.

The direct action at Wendy's headquarters also gave us experience in uniting many organizations behind this fight. We can't overestimate the importance of activists coming together and forging the links that will serve us well in CIW solidarity work, but also the broader struggles against racism, for workers rights, and for immigrant justice.

Socialists should support the CIW campaign all over the country, joining rallies and marches, connecting the CIW struggle with the campaign of low-wage workers in the Fight for 15, and linking the farmworkers' struggle with all immigrant rights, anti-racist and labor organizing.

The CIW is focused on farmworkers' rights, and the FFP has reduced the most oppressive conditions of sexual and economic abuse in an industry that continued to be unregulated.

This abuse isn't only in Mexico and other countries, but right here in the U.S., where the Fair Labor Standards Act continues to exclude farmworkers in significant ways. This is important to emphasize, because sometimes it can be easier for activists to criticize companies for taking work to Mexico, when workers' rights and safety on the job are also unregulated here in the U.S.

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THE CIW'S demands might not seem all that radical. It's important, however, to consider the impact if farmworkers pressured Wendy's to join the FPP, as other fast-food giants such as Taco Bell, McDonald's and Burger King already have.

Wendy's corporate leadership would no doubt use such a concession to polish its image of "corporate social responsibility"--even as Wendy's restaurant workers continued to get the minimum wage or less, as is the case at other fast-food chains that have joined the FFP.

The pious shrines to Wendy's founder Dave Thomas in the halls of the corporate headquarters--describing his "humble beginnings," praising him as a "folk hero" and continuing the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mythology--would remain. So would "white savior" image of Thomas--reflected neatly in Penegor's and Esposito's presentations. Apparently, people of color exist in Wendy's propaganda only when they are being helped by Wendy's charities, depicted as Wendy's workers, or being turned into franchise owners by the corporation's good graces.

All of these questions about social responsibility and corporate greed would still need answers. But getting Wendy's to join the FFP would be a tremendous victory for a group of workers who have had little support except through their self-organization. On campuses and in cities, we should join this fight.

The CIW has uniquely connected the question of workers' rights with immigrant rights and women's rights in launching a wider struggle for social justice. This bodes well for the present and the future. As the CIW's Lupe Gonzalo said at the rally:

We are more unified and stronger than ever, because we know that unity is what makes us strong in these times. Wendy's may think that humiliating us and ignoring us will make us go away, but they're wrong--our community knows how to fight, and we are going to keep struggling harder than ever until Wendy's treats farmworkers like human beings with dignity!