Say it ain’t so, Trader Joe’s!

Trader Joe’s latest communiques on Campaign for Fair Food play fast and loose with the facts, show disturbing willingness to resort to innuendo, echoing darkest days of Burger King campaign…

It seems that the longer Trader Joe’s resists the Fair Food movement, the more its leadership — from the CEO to the public relations department — is determined to tarnish the company’s reputation as an ethical, progressive grocer.

The latest public communications from Trader Joe’s on the Campaign for Fair Food show a growing tendency to play fast and loose with the facts in a way that should be beneath a company that has won its loyal following on the basis of its ethical public image. Trader Joe’s latest “Note to Our Customers,” posted on its website, is full of head-scratching assertions of “facts” that are almost too easily debunked. To wit:

Trader Joe’s statement: “We purchase (Florida tomatoes) through wholesalers who aggregate the product and package the tomatoes for shipment to our warehouses that supply our stores. These wholesalers have indicated to us that they have agreed to pass along an extra “penny per pound” to the workers who harvest these tomatoes.”

Fact check: Trader Joe’s wholesalers have not agreed with the CIW to do anything. Over a month ago, two of Trader Joe’s wholesalers called us, and we discussed various ways in which we might work together to achieve the purposes of the Fair Food Program. They indicated they would discuss each of the alternatives with Trader Joe’s, and get back to us. They never called again.

Trader Joe’s statement: “Additionally, these wholesalers are willing to provide reasonable “audit” rights to the CIW or their agents to verify the pass through for all of their purchases.”

Fact check: Again, Trader Joe’s wholesalers have not agreed with the CIW to do anything.

Given that an agreement requires two parties, and that in this case one of those parties is the CIW, it’s almost unfathomable that a multi-billion dollar company like Trader Joe’s would assert that agreements exist that — and there’s no other way to put it — don’t exist.

Yet the “Note” is a two-page compendium of equally puzzling and misleading statements, including a long, confounding passage on various provisions of the Fair Food agreement template that Trader Joe’s attorneys requested from the CIW several months back.

We will be posting a comprehensive point-by-point response to the latest “Note to Our Customers” soon, because, unfortunately, while so much of the statement is patently wrong, Trader Joe’s put a whole lot of misleading stuff out there and now someone has to debunk it.

From dishonest to downright dirty…

In the back and forth between corporations and social accountability movements, it is hardly uncommon for corporate communiques to twist the facts a little… or even, sometimes, a lot.

Trader Joe’s efforts to paint a flattering picture for customers who question the company’s position on the Campaign for Fair Food — even when reality looks very, very different from the picture they are painting, as outlined above — are pretty much par for the course when it comes to corporate “crisis management”.

But what’s decidedly not typical, and what so famously backfired for Burger King in 2008, is to go dirty, in this case to impugn the integrity — with no facts to support the attacks — of a farmworker community that has forged a new path for the Florida tomato industry. And unfortunately, Trader Joe’s appears to be more than willing to employ the classic tools of innuendo — oblique remarks, suggestive questions — to imply that possibly, just possibly, the penny-per-pound funds are being mishandled.

You be the judge: In another recent Trader Joe’s communication — this one a letter, dated May 9th, to Fair Food activists in the Bay Area who had complained about their treatment at the hands of the store manager during a recent protest — Trader Joe’s Chairman and CEO Dan Bane wrote the following:

“We do not agree, however, to sign an agreement that requires us to pay directly to or negotiate our buying with an undefined activist middle group…”

So, according to the company’s CEO, the CIW is demanding that Trader Joe’s pay something directly either to the CIW or to some other shadowy intermediary.

It should go without saying at this point, but here it is again: The CIW is not asking Trader Joe’s to pay a single penny to the CIW or to any other “activist group,” and we have never asked any company to do that. The Fair Food premium goes from the buyers to the growers who distribute it to their workers through the payroll system. The payments, both in to the growers and out to the workers, are audited by an independent third party (as the Fair Food template agreement sent to Trader Joe’s makes clear). The money is never touched by the CIW or any other “undefined activist middle group.”

The reason all this should go without saying is because the last time a company tried to claim that the CIW was enriching itself through the Campaign for Fair Food, here’s what their CEO had to say when we finally reached an agreement:

“We are pleased to now be working together with the CIW to further the common goal of improving Florida tomato farmworkers’ wages, working conditions and lives. The CIW has been at the forefront of efforts to improve farm labor conditions, exposing abuses and driving socially responsible purchasing and work practices in the Florida tomato fields. We apologize for any negative statements about the CIW or its motives previously attributed to BKC or its employees and now realize that those statements were wrong. Today we turn a new page in our relationship and begin a new chapter of real progress for Florida farmworkers.” read more

Now let’s return to the recent “Note to our Customers”. The same web post that claimed that Trader Joe’s suppliers had already reached non-existent agreements with the CIW also contained a passage questioning the breakdown of the Fair Food premium between the portion that goes to workers as a Fair Food bonus and the portion the growers can retain to cover the increased payroll tax costs associated with the bonus money paid to the workers.

[Quick refresher: The Fair Food premium is a surcharge of 1.5 cents per pound, with 1.3 cents going to the workers. The additional .3 cents is necessary for workers to receive a net penny per pound after a certain amount of tomatoes picked in the field are culled for size, damage, and appearance at the packinghouse. The remaining .2 cents goes to the growers to cover the payroll tax increase caused by the bonus. The 1.3 cents passed on to the workers is 87% of the 1.5 cent premium.]

That breakdown — a standard part of the Fair Food program ever since the McDonald’s agreement — is clearly explained in the template agreement requested by Trader Joe’s attorneys (clearly enough, at least, for eight other multi-billion dollar corporations and their armies of attorneys who helped write it and signed-off on it). Yet Trader Joe’s not only feigns confusion in its web post, it then goes the extra step to ask the oblique question suggestive of foul play:

“The draft agreement says that “Trader Joe’s will require a Participating Grower to ‘pass through’ at least 87% of such Premium received from Trader Joe’s as additional net wage compensation for Qualifying Workers, using the Participating Grower’s normal payroll process.” We support the concept of getting the workers an extra penny per pound. We have no idea where or how 87% fits. We and our wholesalers are willing to pay the “penny per pound” but have no way to determine if such payment is actually getting to the individual worker. We wonder where the excess is supposed to go.”

So it’s starting to look like a pattern, and an intentional one at that. And the pattern is one of claiming that the money involved in the Fair Food program somehow goes missing, with shadowy activist groups or other unknown forces responsible for its disappearance. Trader Joe’s knows better than that, but is misinforming its customers in an effort to create doubt and gain advantage — however short-lived — in the campaign.

Here’s our advice to Trader Joe’s: We would respectfully suggest that you drop the innuendo strategy before it goes any further. Bend the facts on the campaign all you like. We will happily debunk every misleading statement that your marketing department churns out, which will only make you look worse. But stop with the coy insinuations. As history teaches, that doesn’t end well.