RFC and Stanford Students Team Up for Milk With Dignity: ‘Hey Ben & Jerry’s can I get some milk with dignity in my Cherry Garcia?’

Amanda Jacir, February 23, 2017
Teaser Image: RFC and Stanford Students Team Up

Last week, students from Stanford united with Real Food Challenge students in California and demonstrated that when we organize and stand together we can make a real difference in working people’s lives in the food system!

RFC and Students And Labor Alliance (SALA) teamed up to welcome Vermont dairy workers that work in Ben & Jerry’s(B & J)  Vermont dairy supply chain. The night before B&J’s CEO Jostein Solheim was scheduled to speak at Stanford, workers shared their stories and held a dialogue with students to discuss the Milk with Dignity program ,Worker-Driven Social Responsibility vs. Corporate Social Responsibility, and what both look like in practice--in particular what their relationship with Ben and Jerry’s was like and what their working conditions look like. The next day students showed up at Solheim’s talk seeking answers for his delayed promise to stand up for farmworker’s human rights in his supply chain by joining the Milk with Dignity Program as he committed to back in June 2015. Had students not organized to lift up the voices of Vermont’s dairy workers, Solheim would have come and gone from campus without mention of or being held accountable to REAL social justice, a core value of the B&J’s company . But RFC and Stanford students refused to let Solheim off the hook.

As many RFC student organizers have heard in the past the majority of Vermont’s 1200-1500 immigrant farmworkers labor in the state’s iconic but struggling dairy industry.  Rather hypocritically, B&J’s seems to be the only player in their entire dairy supply chain who can make a decent living off the main ingredient in B&J’s world famous ice cream. Indeed, the single biggest contradiction of B&J’s legacy might just be that it has always milked those who milk the cows.  And while those at the top of the supply chain get rich the market’s downward pressure on farm income has real consequences for farmworkers’ wages and working conditions. In the summer of 2014, Migrant Justice surveyed 176 farmworkers, over 10% of immigrant dairy workers in the state, finding:

  • 40% receive less than VT minimum wage
  • 40% don't have a day off (meaning many work 12+ hours a day, 365 days a year)
  • 30% have had a work related injury or illness
  • 29% regularly work 7 (or more) hours without a break to eat     
  • 26% don't receive a pay stub
  • 20% have their first paycheck(s) illegally withheld
  • 20% don't have access to a bathroom or clean water in their workplace
  • 15% have insufficient heat

On top of this, behind B&J’s happy go lucky facade of dancing cows, family farms, and bright blue skies--dairy farms are among the nation’s most dangerous workplaces. For example, the N.Y. State Department of Health reports 61 fatalities on New York dairy farms from 2006 to 2014 alone.

These life and death challenges and systemic exclusions drove Vermont dairy workers all the way to Florida to look for a solution to their problems, and thankfully, they found it. A series of farmworker-to-farmworker exchanges with Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) opened Vermont workers’ eyes to the transformative power of the Worker Driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model that fuels the CIW’s highly acclaimed Fair Food Program (FFP) which RFC has supported for many years now and acknowledges in our Real Food standards. Migrant Justice has since engaged in an in-depth collaborative process with the CIW and FFP to envision and then design the Milk with Dignity Program, which represents the first expansion of the WSR model!

Nearly two years have passed since B&J’s made a public commitment to join the program and farmworkers still don’t have a legally-binding agreement in hand.  So on Friday, Jan. 17, students from RFC and SALA pressed Solheim to define if and when he planned to honor B&J’s 2015 public commitment to stand for the human rights of farmworkers in his Northeast dairy supply chain by joining Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Program. Solheim shared:

"If you want to ensure that you have no human rights abuses in your supply chain the only way you can do that is through a worker-led program. It's the absolute only way. The only way you can know is if you've created the conditions where every worker can self report without fear of reprisal...That is a sure fact and there is no other way of addressing it."

Though the response certainly sounded quite promising students from RFC are familiar with the difference between action and rhetoric. So we continued pushing the CEO to clarify when he would sign an agreement to join the Milk with Dignity program as he had committed to nearly two years ago pushing Solheim to share:

“I have in my bag a contract that I hope I'm going to sign next week but we'll see…”

And still the students persisted--Rosie Linares from Real Food Challenge then asked Solheim if the agreement would contain the 5 essential elements of the Milk with Dignity Program, to which, according to Real Food Challenge, he responded: “Yes”.  

RFC is a network of hundreds of students across the country with student organizers spanning from the west coast, midwest, south, and east coast. Students in the RFC network know what it looks like to win and get commitments from decision makers. They also know what it looks like when their demands are being deliberately stalled and when it comes to farmworker rights RFC has an inseparable vision for Real Food and fair labor standards and will stand in solidarity with farmworkers until justice is served. Hopefully, RFC will be hearing the good news from Vermont dairy workers but until then we look forward to working with all of you to hold B&J’s accountable until they sign this agreement!