“Your burgers may be square…”

“… but your food ain’t fair!” The pigtail brigade takes to the streets in New York!

Kicking off a month of high-spirited actions to call on Wendy’s to join its fellow fast-food leaders in the Fair Food Program, members of the Community Farmworker Alliance hit the ground running in New York this past weekend! Over 60 protesters deep, the Pigtail March for Justice wound through the streets of Manhattan, stopping for lively pickets outside two Wendy’s restaurants along the way. The colorful crew also included representatives from ROC United New YorkUnited Food and Commercial Workers, and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.

Their message was simple:

“The Community Farmworker Alliance says five of biggest fast food companies have already signed the Fair Food Agreement, a campaign to affirm the human rights of tomato pickers and improve labor conditions. But Wendy’s is not one of them…”

And the local CBS News affiliate heard the redheaded marchers loud and clear, putting together an extensive video report, which you can find here.

Unfortunately, it appears that Wendy’s wasn’t quite as inclined to listen. In fact, the news piece captured Wendy’s first real stab at a public response, which was decidedly — though by no means surprisingly — non-responsive:

“… but Wendy’s says they have some protections to make sure that all workers are treated fairly. In a statement, a spokesperson for the fast food restaurant said, “Wendy’s is a member of an independent, non-profit cooperative that purchases all food supplies for our restaurants. All suppliers are required by contract to operate in a way that is safe and lawful for their workers. We believe this is important and the right thing to do.” — Bob Bertini, Spokesperson for Wendy’s

If Mr. Bertini’s answer was a bit cryptic, that’s because he was probably referring to the Strategic Sourcing Group, a purchasing coop that pools the buying power of Wendy’s and Arby’s and “is an example of our aggressive efforts to generate cost savings for our systems,” according to Roland Smith, president and CEO of Wendy’s/Arby’s Group, speaking to the qsrweb.com in an article entitled, “Wendy’s, Arby’s combine purchasing power with new co-op,” (4/19/10).

So, a couple of things. First, the “independent, non-profit cooperative” of Mr. Bertini’s statement is simply a mechanism designed to increase Wendy’s volume purchasing power with one primary goal: to drive down prices in the supply chain. Far from a guarantee against farmworker exploitation, purchasing cooperatives, common in the fast-food industry, are one of the principal tools available to food retailers for squeezing suppliers, and so squeezing farm labor wages, at the bottom of the supply chain.

Second, though we welcome any clarification Wendy’s might provide on the issue, we are pretty darn certain that the Strategic Sourcing Group doesn’t have supplier standards half as progressive as those contained in the Fair Food Code of Conduct, nor does it have teams of auditors trained in monitoring the Florida tomato industry, an education process to inform workers of their rights under the Strategic Sourcing Group code, and a 24-hour complaint line answered by a human being that goes from complaint to investigation and resolution in a matter of days.

No, the Strategic Sourcing Group doesn’t have those things. But the Fair Food Program does.

So let’s just go straight to the heart of the issue: Wendy’s says that ensuring good working conditions for the human beings who harvest its ingredients is the “right thing to do.” We agree. Assuming the company’s commitment to that principle is genuine, Wendy’s should jump at the chance to join us and eleven other major food retailers in the Fair Food Program, which just last week was recognized by the White House as “one of the most successful and innovative programs” in the field of social responsibility… anywhere. But something tells us Wendy’s won’t be jumping our way any time soon.

And so until they do, Wendy’s managers and executives should expect to be seeing much more of this in the months ahead: