Ben & Jerry’s agrees to negotiate ‘Milk With Dignity’ agreement

Farm worker Victor Diaz speaks at a rally Saturday calling for Ben & Jerry's to pay undocumented workers at farms from which the ice cream manufacturer buys milk to pay better wages and ensure better working conditions. Photo courtesy Keith Brunner

Farm worker Victor Diaz speaks at a rally Saturday calling for Ben & Jerry’s to pay undocumented workers at farms from which the ice cream manufacturer buys milk to pay better wages and ensure better working conditions. Photo courtesy Keith Brunner

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream company is negotiating an agreement that would give migrant dairy workers in Vermont higher wages and more time off.

The undocumented workers, most of whom are from Mexico and Guatemala, say Vermont dairy farms require them to work long hours and do not pay fair wages.

Workers from local dairy farms marched in Burlington on Saturday to the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop on Church Street, as part of a campaign to “restore dignity” to dairy farming.

Migrant Justice, a workers rights group, organized the protest in Burlington as part of a nationwide campaign in 16 cities called the “Milk with Dignity Program.” The activists are demanding that Ben & Jerry’s sign a pledge guaranteeing workers minimum wage and time off.

Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim and Migrant Justice, the nonprofit organization advocating for migrant workers’ rights and justice, have agreed to work out a code of conduct for the treatment of migrant workers.

The migrant workers who participated in the rally Saturday work on dairy farms in Vermont that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s. One of the workers, Victor Diaz, spoke at the rally and handed a letter to Rob Michalak, global director of social mission at Ben & Jerry’s.

Diaz, originally from Chiapas, Mexico, has worked in the dairy farming industry for four years and in the Vermont dairy farm industry for three years. He currently works at a dairy farm in Vergennes.

Diaz said in Spanish that workers went ahead with the rally to show Ben & Jerry’s that they will be going “all the way to the finish line with an agreement.”

 Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry's  global director of social mission, shakes hands with dairy farm worker Victor Diaz. Brendan O'Neill, director of Migrant Justice, is in center with red folder. Photo courtesy Keith Brunner

Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s global director of social mission, shakes hands with dairy farm worker Victor Diaz. Brendan O’Neill, director of Migrant Justice, is in center with red folder. Photo courtesy Keith Brunner

A small group at the rally, including Diaz and Brendan O’Neill, the founder of Migrant Justice, went into the scoop shop to hand the letter to Michalak.

“We’re here to leave a letter to encourage you to keep working with us,” Diaz said, translated by O’Neill.

The letter, addressed to Solheim, was signed by 45 representatives of organizations that O’Neill referred to as the “Milk With Dignity Coalition.”

“We understand that many dairy farmers are also facing serious economic challenges and are in need of economic relief,” the authors of the letter wrote. “The Milk with Dignity program rewards those farms that have it right by having corporate participants pay more down the supply chain to both the farmer and the farm worker. We anticipate many farms to enthusiastically support this initiative.”

Back outside, their rally chant changed from “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can) to “Si, se pudo” (Yes, we did). One end goal for Diaz is to guarantee Vermont minimum wage for all the state’s dairy farm workers.

Michalak said many of Vermont’s dairy farms pay minimum or higher wages.

Surveys conducted by Migrant Justice and the farm workers don’t match the company’s assertion.

Diaz said workers also need better housing and days off for illness, holidays and vacations.

“We have workers who don’t get a single day off a week,” Diaz said.

A lot of the workers supported by the campaign work 12 to 14 hours in a day, according to the letter. Without a single day off, that could be anywhere between 84 and 98 hours in a week.

Decisions about how many hours employees work is really up to the employer, Michalak said.

“It’s not as clear cut as their rallying cry makes it out to be, though I can understand why they have a rallying cry,” Michalak said.

Following the agreement that was reached on Friday, Michalak said that the rally was not really necessary to get Ben & Jerry’s to continue to work with them in the contract negotiations and that the June 19 agreement was more for Migrant Justice’s benefit as “they probably believe that written commitments are more powerful than verbal commitments.”

“We’ve been working with them,” Michalak said. “I mean we’ve always been working toward social justice and economic justice. I guess it makes sense that Migrant Justice felt that it was necessary for the community to hear the voices of the migrant workers, and I can understand that.”

Michalak said the company will continue to work out negotiations with Migrant Justice.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the Ben & Jerry’s representative working with Migrant Justice and misspelled Victor Diaz’ surname.


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Ben Louis
1 year 5 months ago
As a working class Vermonter, I am glad these farm workers are getting a seat at the table and a chance to live in dignity for their labor. My ancestors were from Quebec (and only spoke French). My grandfather used to come down to Vermont, during the depression, to pick up farm work during the harvest. From what he used to say he would work for next to nothing (but it was more than he could earn at home). He brought his money back, every season, and busted his ass to give my father a reasonable chance to have a… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
1 year 5 months ago

An interesting history of the failings of Quebec (which persist to this day). What of the children of your two college graduates? Will they have to become illegal aliens (maybe in Canada, Mexico, China) to find work the illegal aliens in the US have been given by greed motivated employers?

Carl Marcinkowski
1 year 5 months ago

This is all well and good but Vt. farmers need to be able to make a profit on milk. As it is the US milk market is manipulated such that it is a rough go for most farmers to pull a profit most of the time.

John Freitag
1 year 5 months ago

I am baffled why dairy farm workers do not have a similar program with wage and working conditions to that for foreign workers on Vermont’s fruit and vegetable farms. It does not serve us well to have undocumented exploited workers on the farms in our state. Besides being bad for the workers, it creates and uneven playing field for other farmers. We need to get to the root of this issue and develop a program within the law not around it.

Janice Prindle
1 year 5 months ago
I’m glad to see this happening. It’s time Vermont news outlets gave more attention to the scandal of our treatment of immigrant workers in our dairy industry, and to educate the public about how they came to be here in the first place — what American corporations through NAFTA have done to take over their land, and their market, in Mexico and Guatemala and force them into what is essentially indentured servanthood– or worse, given the recent arrest of a Vermont state senator on sexual abuse charges. I applaud Ben & Jerry’s for their willingness to walk the walk when… Read more »
rosemarie jackowski
1 year 5 months ago

Janice…That is a great comment.
I would only add, that since they are working here they should also be allowed to vote.

If we believe in the principle that all men are created equal, then the location of his mother at the time of his birth is irrelevant. Prejudice is prejudice and we really have enough of that in Vermont.

Jason Wells
1 year 5 months ago

How about calling for the jailing of the farm owners who employ the illegal aliens this amounts to nothing more than legalized slavery. Huge fines and asset forfeiture to anyone who hires illegals.

The simple fact here is that these farm owners hire these illegals because it is way cheaper than paying minimum wage and providing required workplace protections afforded by law to legal citizens or migrants with work permits. Slavery is alive and well in the progressive State of Vermont.

Ed Cronis
1 year 5 months ago

This is what will happen. They receive a “livable wage”, followed by native Vermonter’s then applying for those jobs. Followed by the migrant workers loosing their jobs. Sounds like they are protesting themselves out of a job to me.

Rich Lachapelle
1 year 5 months ago
With Vermont’s lavish cornucopia of social benefits, I can’t see most people opting for even a living wage job if it involves getting up before the sun and getting all smelly. Dairy farm work is the perfect example of what is referred to as ” work that Americans just wont do”. Employers, in this case farmers, can get away with this skirting of wage and immigrant hiring laws because we all turn a blind eye to it for cheap food prices. Since Ben and Jerry’s as a private entity is complicit in this “slave trade”, the least they can do… Read more »
fred moss
1 year 5 months ago

They broke the law by just being here.

Do they pay SS taxes, Federal Taxes, State taxes??? NO the answer is NO.

Both the employee and employer are at fault here.

Chuck Lacy
1 year 5 months ago

Undocumented workers do pay SSI and they do pay Federal and State taxes. In fact they are “bolstering social security” according to the NYT.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/05/business/illegal-immigrants-are-bolstering-social-security-with-billions.html?_r=0

Undocumented workers pay state and local taxes proportional to income at rates greater than the top 1%.

http://money.cnn.com/2014/11/20/news/economy/immigration-myths/

and

http://www.itep.org/whopays/full_report.php#State By State Pages

The majority of undocumented workers file federal tax returns with the IRS and they are not eligible for welfare, food stamps, medicaid, etc.

The Cato Institute reports that lower income legal immigrants (who are not eligible for benefits for five years after immigration) are less likely to use public benefits than native born citizens.

1 year 5 months ago
Exploitation and pollution — the bedrock of our current “cheap” corporate food system. This is what happens when the economy disregards ecology. Ben & Jerry’s​ could be a major player in the solution by charging the actual production cost of this luxury product rather than shifting the costs to the worker and our environment. $10 a pint, for example, would lessen demand not putting as much pressure on the producer to cut corners with labor and our land and water. The current pricing system is demonstrably unsustainable. It is not as if sugar-laden sweets are a global necessity.
Gary Neggins
1 year 5 months ago

There are not many things that I think should be subsidized but Ben and Jerry’s is one of those. It is more than just an ice cream but an icon of Vermont that the world thinks about, when they think of Vermont. Not to mention its an ou standing tasting product.

Vote Bernie!
Cheers.

Dan Carver
1 year 5 months ago

The next petition we hear about will come from prison inmates. The request is to ensure every seasonal home be stocked with a years supply of food, extra clothes for all sizes of people, $1,000 of spare cash in small denominations,backup generators and fuel to keep them warm, etc.

Why have laws? The majority of Vermonters scream for banning activities they don’t like, yet support law breakers. What gives?

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