On Tuesday October 3, farmworker leaders from Migrant Justice and the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s jointly signed the Milk with Dignity agreement. The legally-binding contract establishes Ben & Jerry’s as the first company in the dairy industry to implement the worker-driven human rights program. This momentous occasion marks the beginning of a new day for dairy, one that provides economic relief and support to struggling farm owners, in the form of a premium paid by Ben & Jerry’s, while ensuring dignity and respect for farmworkers.
Before putting his signature on the document, Migrant Justice spokesperson Enrique “Kike” Balcazar spoke to those assembled:
“This is an historic moment for dairy workers. We have worked tirelessly to get here, and now we move forward towards a new day for the industry. We appreciate Ben & Jerry’s leadership role and look forward to working together to implement a program that ensures dignified housing and fair working conditions on dairy farms across the region. And though this is the first, it won’t be the last agreement of its kind."
Vermont dairy workers came home this week following a 12-day speaking tour along the East coast. Workers traveled to 11 cities -- from Burlington to Washington, D.C. -- to draw attention to human rights abuses in the dairy supply chain of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In college lecture halls and community health centers, the farmworkers who put the cream in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream rallied students, workers, and faith leaders to call on the company to ensure fair working conditions by following through on their long-awaited commitment to the Milk with Dignity program on a national “Human Rights Can’t Wait” day of action planned for October 5th.
Dairy workers kicked off the “Human Rights Can’t Wait” speaking tour through the Northeast last week, engaging hundreds of students and community members. Presentations included a packed house at Columbia Law School, a community dialogue at the MayDay space in Brooklyn, and a full day at Yale University with four events throughout the day coordinated by the Yale Sustainable Food Program.
The following appeared as an op-ed in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on August 5th, 2017
A bill is quietly wending its way through Congress that would seriously hurt Vermont, our farmers, and the workers who sustain the state’s $1.3 billion dairy industry.
The U.S. House Appropriations Committee recently adopted an amendment to the 2018 homeland security spending bill that would expand H-2A to include dairy farms. Though there are more votes needed before this measure could become law, last week’s committee vote represents a step towards the expansion of this dangerous anti-worker program. The creation of a new legal path for Vermont farms to hire migrant workers may sound like a welcome option, but in fact, passage of the amendment would be a step backwards. It would exclude and displace the women and men currently sustaining Vermont’s dairy farms, rather than grant status to the existing labor force and recognize our farmworker neighbors as equals under the law.
Just over a month ago, Jostein Solheim, the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, publicly reassured hundreds of farmworkers and their fair food allies -- at the culmination of their 13-mile march to the company's factory in Waterbury, VT – that Ben & Jerry’s is “ready to go” when it comes to Milk with Dignity.
And yet the corporation, known by many for its professed progressive values, still has yet to follow through on its commitment to protect the fundamental human rights of dairy workers in its supply chain by signing the Milk with Dignity Agreement. The Milk with Dignity Program is in fact ready to go, and designed to secure economic justice in the dairy industry by requiring corporations, like Ben & Jerry’s, to pay a price premium that goes to providing farmworkers and farmers economic relief and direct support to comply with the Program’s human rights based Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct requires farms to respect workers’ fundamental rights or lose sales to participating buyers.
To keep the pressure on Ben & Jerry’s to honor its commitment, Migrant Justice farmworker members and allies are hitting the road for the big Human Rights Can’t Wait Tour in September. From Vermont to New York City, to Boston, to DC and Philadelphia along the 1000 + mile tour route, workers will be informing the public exactly what’s inside that pint of Ben & Jerry’s when it comes to human rights conditions for dairy workers. The Tour will culminate in a national day of action on October 5th, and we need your support to make it happen.
Labor journalist Jonathan Leavitt embedded himself in Migrant Justice’s recent 13-mile march for Milk with Dignity. Together with hundreds of farmworkers and supporters, he witnessed an unanticipated yet welcome turn of events at the climax of the march. In a recent in-depth article for popular online news site Truthout, he captures the moment:
“Speaking to the farmworkers assembled before his production facility, Ben & Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim said, "We have all the key pillars of the program defined and clear, we've got the right incentive structure for workers and farmers, and Ben & Jerry's is ready to go."
"Sign it now! Sign it now!" the crowd of several hundred farmworkers and allies chanted."
In all the commotion, someone from the crowd stepped forward and handed the CEO a pen and, appearing to concede, he signed a huge blown up copy of a letter written by 15 major human rightsorganizations, including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, calling on Ben & Jerry’s to join the program. This encouraging -- though ultimately only symbolic -- gesture left many in the crowd wondering if the long-anticipated Milk with Dignity Program was now a reality.
As summer flies by, the days turn to weeks since Ben & Jerry’s reaffirmed its unfulfilled pledge to join the Milk with Dignity Program. As many Vermonters are cooling off with a dip in a swimming hole and a scoop of their favorite ice cream, farmworkers labor for 60 to 80 hours a week through the sweltering heat without the human rights agreement they’ve been fighting for for years.
On Friday June 30th, Vermont farmworkers Esau and Yesenia were set free after another community-powered campaign. The Border Patrol arrest of Yesenia and Esau -- just hours after they led a 13-mile march calling on Ben & Jerry’s to stand up for the human rights of dairy workers in its supply chain -- generated a mass response of outrage. Three rallies across Vermont, national headlines, 1,600 emails to ICE, dozens of letters of support, and over 50 supporters chanting outside the immigration courthouse in Boston were all decisive factors persuading the judge to release the two on bail.
The release of Yesenia and Esau came one day before Migrant Justice leaders Enrique “Kike” Balcazar and Zully Palacios, both targeted and arrested by ICE just months ago, received the National Education Association’s (NEA) distinguished “César Chávez Civil and Human Rights Award” on behalf of Migrant Justice. Zully and Kike accepted the award at the NEA’s annual conference to a standing ovation from over a thousand teachers from across the country.
The NEA, the nation’s largest union, also honored Migrant Justice with this newly released video, as this powerful group of educators pledged their support to stand with Migrant Justice in its campaign to get Ben & Jerry’s to practice what it preaches by joining the Milk with Dignity Program without further delay.
“César Chávez notably said ‘If you want to remember me, organize.’ Migrant Justice embodies his spirit and carries his torch forward,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Migrant Justice is organizing farmworkers to address the challenges they face and bringing about systemic change to improve and advance their fundamental human rights. They are a national model for their cutting-edge human rights organizing and concrete victories. Migrant Justice motivates us, inspires us through their deeds and actions, and embodies what is just and right about César Chávez.”
On June 17th Vermont farmworkers led about 250 people on a pilgrimage through Vermont’s working rural landscapes with a powerful national call to action for human rights in hand, walking 13 miles from Vermont’s State House to the Ben & Jerry’s plant in Waterbury. The march placed dairy workers’ campaign for human rights in Ben & Jerry’s supply chain on the national center stage piquing interest from coast (Washington Post) to coast (San Francisco Chronicle) under one banner:
“Scores of farm workers, activists march on Ben & Jerry’s”
Now, on the heels of the march, Vermont farmworkers’ tireless efforts and sacrifices for justice and dignity in the dairy industry are inspiring prominent leaders in faith communities across the nation and moving them to stand in solidarity with Vermont dairy workers.
In the early morning light, at 7am on Saturday June 17th, nearly 150 farmworkers and supporters gathered in front of the Vermont State House gearing up for what would be an historic day. Nearly two years to the day when Ben & Jerry’s made its still-unfulfilled public commitment to Milk with Dignity, Farmworker organizer Enrique “Kike” Balcazar kicked off the action:
“Today, we are marching 13 miles to Ben & Jerry’s to make sure they make good on their promise they made two years ago to join and implement the Milk with Dignity Program, because our human rights cannot wait a single day longer.”
Read more to see photos from the march!