The Evolution of the Milk with Dignity Program: Vermont Dairy Workers’ 8 Year Struggle for Human Rights and a Voice in the Dairy Industry
Posted Wed, 05/17/2017 - 4:43pm
December 22, 2009
January 2010-October 2010
José Obeth’s death serves as spark igniting farmworkers community assemblies across Vermont. Workers begin discussing and analyzing shared problems and envisioning collective solutions, laying the foundation for the creation of Migrant Justice.
Vermont dairy workers organize work stoppage after a farmer steals nearly $5,000 in wages, verbally abuses and intimidates workers. Migrant Justice launches a state-wide workers’ rights hotline in early 2011 helping to resolve, as of this writing, over 50 wage theft cases, winning back nearly $20,000 in stolen wages--including cases on farms that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s.
Migrant Justice is invited to Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in Vermont to show the documentary film “Silenced Voices,” that tells the story of the death of José Obeth and the struggles of fellow migrant farmworkers working in Ben & Jerry’s Vermont dairy supply chain.
August - December 2011
Migrant Justice worker members meet with Ben & Jerry’s “Social Mission” and “Caring Dairy” team. Migrant Justice points out that Ben & Jerry’s has yet to take concrete action, since its inception, to ensure that its cream (its main ingredient!) is sourced from workplaces that respect the fundamental human rights of dairy workers.
Migrant Justice conducts a survey of nearly 60 dairy farmworkers to better understand and document workplace conditions on Vermont dairy farms, finding that:
65% of workers receive below Vermont minimum wage
43% receive no pay stubs
33% of workers say employers discourage workers from leaving the farm or receiving visitors.
17% of employers illegally withhold workers’ first paycheck
12% of workers are paid less than federal minimum wage
Migrant Justice farmworker leaders and staff are invited back to Ben & Jerry’s headquarters to present their 2011 survey results.
Migrant Justice champions a historic, human rights victory in the state of Vermont by changing state law to secure access to driver’s licenses for all Vermont residents, regardless of their immigration status. The landmark legislative win follows three years of community building and mobilization among farmworkers and their allies.
Farmworker Victor Diaz organizes fellow farmworkers and community members to take action winning back workers’ stolen wages on a farm that supplies milk to Ben & Jerry’s. Victor emerges as a community leader catalyzing the creation of the Milk With Dignity Program.
Ben & Jerry’s Foundation (independent of the ice cream company) receives the 2014 distinguished “National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy High Impact Award” and is specifically recognized for the Foundation’s support of Migrant Justice’s groundbreaking work on driver’s licenses and policing policies. Meanwhile, the Ben & Jerry’s corporation never expresses public support for these two historic farmworker-led human rights campaigns.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) sends a delegation of farmworkers to Vermont beginning a series of farmworker encuentros (exchanges and dialogues). The exchanges inspire Vermont workers to envision and design the Milk with Dignity Program as a Worker-driven Social Responsibility initiative adapted from the CIW’s groundbreaking Fair Food Program.
September - December 2014
Migrant Justice launches an expanded farmworker to farmworker survey to further document the reality of dairy workers in Vermont. This survey reveals that Ben & Jerry’s suppliers are amongst a number of farms that routinely deny workers access to basic health care, have stolen worker’s wages, or who sleep in run-down housing quarters, with some workers living directly above the cows they milk each day.
Migrant Justice’s farmworker leaders and staff translate the issues identified by workers in the surveys into the worker-defined Code of Conduct that now lies at the heart of the Milk with Dignity Program.
In December, 2014, Migrant Justice meets again with Ben & Jerry’s, issuing a formal in-person invitation for the company to join the Milk with Dignity Program. Victor Diaz shares his story of working on a St. Albans Cooperative farm. Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy team suggests Migrant Justice take its problems elsewhere.
January-April, 2015. Migrant Justice requests a follow up meeting with Ben & Jerry’s CEO. In response, Ben & Jerry’s instead informs Migrant Justice that it plans to incorporate some aspects of the Milk with Dignity Program into Ben & Jerry’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, “Caring Dairy”. Workers adamantly reject Ben & Jerry’s CSR proposal, reissuing the invitation for Ben & Jerry’s to join the worker-led Milk With Dignity Program. CEO Jostein Solheim refuses to meet with workers.
On May 1, 2015, with no response from Ben & Jerry’s, Migrant Justice launches the Milk with Dignity Campaign--informing consumers across the country that despite four years of meetings, Ben & Jerry’s refuses to take action to provide a voice and human rights to the workers in its dairy supply chain. On June 20th, Migrant Justice organizes 17 actions at Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops across the nation--building strong alliances between workers and consumers.
June 19, 2015
On the eve of the actions, Ben & Jerry’s and Migrant Justice enter into an Agreement of Cooperation, in which Ben & Jerry’s promised to “work with Migrant Justice towards a written agreement…to adopt Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Program within Ben & Jerry’s Northeast dairy supply chain.”
July 3, 2015
Ben & Jerry’s commitment to join the Milk with Dignity Program is featured on the front page of the New York Times business section.
Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s begin meeting to hammer out the Milk with Dignity Program “written agreement” that Ben & Jerry’s promised to enter into. Migrant Justice shares with Ben & Jerry’s the 5 essential elements of the Program, including the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct.
Despite promises to enter into the Milk with Dignity Program, Ben & Jerry’s instead proceeds with its farm labor standards in its corporate program, “Caring Dairy”, which lacks all of the agreed upon essential elements of the worker-driven Milk with Dignity Program.
Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s hold a three-day meeting in Vermont but do not reach an agreement to implement the Milk with Dignity Program in Ben & Jerry’s supply chain.
After additional months working closely with B&J’s to work out details of the agreement, and believing that B&J’s was finally ready to put pen to paper, Migrant Justice supports the formation of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council--the independent third party monitoring body that provides oversight and assists with the daily operations of the Milk with Dignity Program.
December 24, 2016
On Christmas Eve, Migrant Justice farmworker members send a plea to Ben & Jerry’s to honor their promise to enter into a written agreement with Migrant Justice, urging them to finalize the agreement as planned in order to launch the MD Program in 2017.
Consumers, students, and food justice organizations across the country, eager to learn about this groundbreaking worker-led program, extend a series of invitations to highlight the Milk with Dignity Program as an innovative and effective way to secure worker’s rights in supply chains. Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Program is invited to present at Stanford University and at Vermont’s own Northeast Organic Farming Association’s annual conference kicking off a Northeast Milk with Dignity speaking tour.
The Milk with Dignity Program is invited to present at the Harvard Fair Food Forum in Boston, at the annual Freedom Network conference in Washington, DC, and at the New England Farm to Institution Summit in Massachusetts.
Consumers across the country put in more than 400 calls to Ben & Jerry’s in one day (approximately 1 call a minute) demanding they sign the Milk with Dignity Agreement, and conduct 11 scoop shop actions on “Free Cone Day” 2017.
On May 1, 2017. Consumers, students, labor, and communities of faith stand with farmworkers in Vermont in a huge and spirited International Workers Day protest.
May 10-11, 2017 Jobs With Justice activists send over 4,000 emails to Ben & Jerry’s in just two days urging they join the Milk with Dignity Program.
On June 17, 2017 On the eve of the two year anniversary of the 2015 Agreement of Cooperation Migrant Justice calls for huge and historic march through Vermont’s iconic dairy landscapes to Ben & Jerry’s Waterbury factory and tourist destination.