“Behind the Braids” Comes to Providence

The Wendy’s on Charles Street doesn’t know what’s coming for it.

This Friday, from 4 pm to 5:30 pm, the national boycotting tour known as “Behind the Braids” will arrive in Providence, to picket the only major fast food company that refuses to join the Fair Food Program (FFP).

Hiding behind the insidiously innocent logo of a cutesy white girl with sharp red braids, Wendy’s has issued empty claims of social consciousness, while continuing to exploit hundreds of Immokalee workers, many of them immigrants from Central and South America.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was founded in 1993, and has since grown to be what Rutgers’ labor relations professor Janice R. Fine describes as the “best workplace-monitoring program [she’s] seen in the U.S.” The CIW focuses on protecting farmers’ rights, eliminating gender-based violence in the workplace, and cultivating a climate of social responsibility. Some of their notable movements include the Anti-Slavery Campaign, liberating thousands from situations of forced farm labor, and their Campaign for Fair Food, an education campaign informing consumers on issues surrounding the exploitation of farm labor.

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In 2011, the organization started the Fair Food Program, which united farm workers with Florida tomato growers and large retailers like Whole Foods. One of the major components of the FFP is known as the Fair Food premium. Essentially, for every transaction, retailers pay a small, additional fee—a penny for a pound—that goes directly to the tomato pickers. For workers who, as Harper’s Magazine reports, were “still being paid the forty cents per thirty-two-pound bucket of tomatoes that they were two decades” ago, this premium is invaluable.

Slowly, major chains agreed to this new standard, usually in the wake of nationwide CIW boycotts that appealed directly to customers. Taco Bell was the first target of these boycotts, which found strong roots on college campuses. Taco Bell finally gave in, and was soon followed by McDonald’s, Chipotle, Wal-Mart, Subway and Burger King. Wendy’s alone continues to hold out, the last of the five major fast food companies.

Ignoring the farmers’ outcries, the company continues to pursue business models that promise social responsibility but deliver little. The “Behind the Braids” platform notes that the fast food chain “released a new supplier code of conduct in November 2015… contain[ing] no effective mechanisms for worker participation or enforcement.” As reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2014, Wendy’s has even transferred most of its tomato business to Mexico, where farmworkers have also been subject to the exploitative practices of big businesses.

Unfortunately, it is often easy to cynically expect nothing more than corruption from our major American companies. Does such action on the part of Wendy’s even come as a surprise, given the questionable, often deplorable practices of our food industries that we already know to be true? In the face of this entrenched corruption, what can something like the penny-for-pound policy actually achieve?

Such cynicism serves as a great disservice to the men and women of the CIW, who have worked relentlessly to take back the means of production, to be heard and respected as people, not just faceless parts of a long and abstract assembly line. The Fair Food Program is undeniably strong; the CIW reports that since the penny-for-pound policy was established, member companies have paid over $20 million dollars, directly into the FFP.

With such worker driven infrastructure in place, the task before those of us seeking to help realize change is simple. The Friday boycott here in Providence is a small, important part of something larger—a way for our voices to support those already calling for action. We hope to see you there!  

If you’re near College Hill, join the Brown Student Labor Alliance, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Student Farmworker Alliance, and the Alliance for Fair Food on Thursday from 7-8pm to learn how students, specifically, can help support the farmworker-led boycott.

More information about the history and efforts of the CIW can be found on their website.

The Facebook link to this Friday’s event is here.

This piece was edited by Mimi Frotten.

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