Why does the US Chamber of Commerce hate America? (apologies to Stephen Colbert…)

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If the Fair Food Program is good for Florida tomato growers, good for American food corporations, and good for American workers, why has the Chamber of Commerce teamed up with other Washington lobbying groups to attack the CIW?

In Part One of this two-part series, we established the business argument for the Fair Food Program:

vig18In summary, in the space of a few short years since that “watershed moment” in 2010, the Florida tomato industry has undergone an unprecedented transformation, a metamorphosis that, in the words of Barry Estabrook in 2011, took it from being “one of the most repressive employers in the country… to being on the road to becoming the most progressive group in the fruit and vegetable industry.”  That road has now been travelled.  There has been, since 2010, nothing short of a quiet revolution in transparency and human rights in Florida agriculture.

Wages are beginning to rise, abuses are being addressed and eliminated, and turnover is down significantly on most farms. And in a particularly encouraging sign, this season was marked by the entry into Florida tomatoes of a major agricultural entity that has invested in thousands of new acres of production, creating thousands of new jobs, and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrating real confidence in the future of Florida tomatoes.

… Since signing, the Florida tomato industry has gotten its labor problems under control, established a well-earned public image as the produce industry with the highest, most rigorously monitored and enforced human rights standards in the nation, and created a product — a fairly grown tomato — with which its main challenger, Mexico, can’t even hope to compete.

Meanwhile, the Mexican agricultural industry sinks every day deeper into chaos.  

Yet not everyone is pleased with the remarkable renaissance taking place in Florida’s fields today.  

In Part Two, we are going to take a look at what the New York Times called an “aggressive campaign,” led by a coalition of special interest groups including the US Chamber of Commerce and a newly-formed attack group by the name of Worker Center Watch, attempting to discredit the CIW and other low-wage worker organizations.  In the case of the CIW, these attacks aim to undermine the ability of Fair Food Program to do its essential work of protecting the human rights of tens of thousands of farmworkers in Florida’s fields.

Which raises this fundamental question: Why has a social responsibility partnership that has proven so effective in eliminating longstanding business risks like sexual harassment and modern-day slavery — risks that threatened to cripple an entire industry just a few short years ago — come under such intense fire from an organization like the Chamber of Commerce that is supposed to be advancing the interests of business?  

The answer unfortunately requires a rather extended descent into the dark world of right-wing attack organizations.  Please stick with us, there is a reason we are taking this unpleasant plunge.

“The man in the gray coat”: An object lesson in sleazy public relations tactics…

For longtime readers of this site, the photo below — from a Wendy’s protest in Washington last November organized by DC Fair Food —  includes all the telltale signifiers of a Fair Food protest.  A large, diverse crowd of young people, their smiles combined with their commitment, their colorful, handmade signs and music painting the very picture of an inclusive, fun celebration of human rights.  


Every last detail says Fair Food, except one… can you see it?  That’s right, the oversized soviet flag, the big, red, expanse of cloth adorned with a yellow hammer and sickle photo-bombing the picture in the top right corner behind the crowd.  

Ever see anything like that at a Fair Food protest before?  Well, if you are asking yourself why it was there, then you are not alone.  Here’s a first-hand account from one of the participants that day: 

I first noticed the guy when we were gathered at the White House.  He was holding up a red and yellow sickle and hammer flag, and was wearing an Obama beanie.  Some other organizers offered him one of our signs for him to hold, rather than the flag, and he accepted the sign.  I saw him at the very beginning of the march, at the very back.  I didn’t see him after we left the White House, throughout the rest of the march.  I noticed him again towards the end of our picketing at Wendy’s, while people were speaking and giving report-backs.  He was standing on the corner, holding the Communist flag towards traffic.  Several of us got flags and banners and held them in front of him so that the flag would not be visible to the passing cars.  I exchanged some words with him, as did others, asking him to put the flag down and respect the work many of us had done to organize the protest by not detracting from our specific message, and specific demands of Wendy’s.  He asserted his right to free speech, of wanting to spread his own message.
flag2We continued to block his flag with banners while a man in a gray coat hovered around, attempting to take pictures of the man with the flag, using a silver handheld camera.   After a few moments, it became apparent that the men were collaborating somehow.  The one with the camera was clearly gesturing at the man with the flag, trying to get him to adjust his position for a better staging of the flag with the protest.  I do not remember exact verbal exchanges between them, but because of their extensive eye contact, gesturing, and maneuvering, it was obvious to me and other march participants that the men were working together.
I directly asked if they were there to discredit us and shortly after, the man in the coat crossed the street and the man with the flag followed him closely down the block.  They were almost out of sight when Sal ran after them and took their picture [below]. I saw the picture and they were clearly standing together on a curb.
Sooooo creepy, let me know if you have any questions.
Kate Kelly  
The organizers were so uneasy about the duo that they actually registered their concerns with the police who were there at the time, letting them know that the two were not with the protest, and that if they did anything provocative, the police should know that their actions were not any part of the protest as a whole.  
The protesters didn’t recognize the man in the gray coat at the time, but once they captured him on film and the picture made its way to Immokalee his identity was no longer a mystery:  
ryanRyan Williams is a senior vice president at FP1 Strategies, a Washington based public affairs, advertising, grassroots and media relations firm. He also serves as a spokesman for Worker Center Watch.
It was Ryan Williams, the spokesperson for Worker Center Watch.

Worker Center Watch: When the truth isn’t on our side, we make stuff up…

That’s not really Worker Center Watch’s motto, but it might as well be.
The members of DC Fair Food may not have recognized him, but here in Immokalee Mr. Williams and Worker Center Watch had flashed onto our radar several months before the DC incident.  And given our experience with him up to that point, the fact that he might stoop so low as to try to plant a soviet flag at a Fair Food rally was, sadly, hardly surprising.  “Sleazy” is a charitable description of the tactics practiced by this particular outfit, and frustration over the failure of his earlier efforts to discredit the CIW almost certainly led him to attempt the amateurish flag-planting stunt at the DC protest. 
penny_plunderWorker Center Watch popped up fully formed in the world last fall with a fresh new website, a flurry of op/eds attacking worker centers as “fronts for unions,” and a particularly vicious smear campaign aimed at the CIW, called, ingeniously, “The CIW Penny Plunder Campaign.”  Among its laundry list of smears, Worker Center Watch accused the CIW of misdirecting the penny-per-pound funds away from workers’ wages to fund “community theater and art.”
Williams was undeterred by the fact that the CIW doesn’t direct the penny-per-pound funds at all, much less misdirect them. [Quick reality check: As explained by participating buyers and growers herethe Fair Food Premium is paid by the participating buyers to the participating growers through their established supply chain channels and from there is distributed by the participating growers to workers through each farm’s regular payroll as a Fair Food Bonus.]  Facts, of course, are not his trade.  Instead, he went straight to the right-wing smear campaign playbook, throwing anything he could at the CIW and the Fair Food Program, hoping something might stick.
His first play was to issue a press release calling on Florida’s Attorney General to investigate the CIW for “any occurrences of deceptive trade practices.”  With the “news” of his call for an investigation in place, he then sent op/eds to newspapers far and wide, using his request for an investigation as the hook for the op/eds.  When only a handful of papers picked up his opinion piece, he then resorted to commenting in the reader discussion section following articles on the “news” he himself had ginned up.  The vicious cycle of unchecked lies sputtered forward until, finally, the lies ran into the truth and his efforts started to run out of gas.  The public relations ponzi scheme crashed.  You can only make up so much stuff before even the most credulous press finally realize there is no wolf. 
First, to her credit, Florida’s Attorney General saw through the cheap public relations trick and declined to investigate a claim that funds were being diverted by an organization that never even comes into contact with the funds in question.  Then the Ft. Myers News-Press ran an article taking a closer look at Worker Center Watch and dug into their own archives to discover an almost uncanny parallel between Williams’ claims and those of a Burger King executive caught red-handed by the paper in 2008 spreading lies about the CIW on internet chat forums as well.  Here’s an excerpt:


When it came to light in 2008 that Burger King spied on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers while one of its executives spread lies about the group online, the fast food giant apologized, fired the V.P. and signed the Fair Food agreement.

Now, similar claims about the coalition are spreading again, this time by a Washington, D.C.-based group called Worker Center Watch…

“The CIW is a self-serving attack organization with no real members or workers (that) creates conflict and spreads overly simplistic misinformation to unquestioning students. … (It) reaps millions in cash from unknowing or duped supporters. … The CIW has fooled thousands with its slick internet stories, collected millions in return and given the workers nothing.”

“The CIW is nothing more than a corporate shakedown machine, doing its best to implement union goals in the agriculture sector. And like any shakedown artist, the bank account of the target is more important than the legitimacy of the claim. … For far too long the CIW has spent funds to tarnish corporate brands … with little transparency as to how the remaining millions of dollars it has collected is being spent.”

The first was Burger King V.P. Steve Grover posing as his young daughter in 2008; the second is Williams in a 2013 news release. Grover was discovered by The News-Press, to which his daughter confessed the ruse.

Inevitably, as Worker Center Watch’s attempts to sling mud at the CIW continued to miss, the media focus turned from the target to the slinger, and the press began to scrutinize just how this vocal new critic of the Fair Food Program suddenly came to be.  The DC-based blog “The Hill” first asked Williams to identify his funding sources, but he refused:

the_hillThe group has support from businesses, but Williams refused to disclose its donors.

“Our group is made up of business donors, hard-working Americans and citizens who are concerned about the legally questionable activities of worker centers,” Williams said. “We don’t identify our supporters because disclosing their names will undoubtedly result in harassment and intimidation by unions and their affiliates.”

Then The Nation dug a bit further and found what we had suspected all along, a direct connection to the food industry (more on that below):


Parquet Public Affairs, a Florida-based government relations and crisis management firm for retailers and fast food companies, registered the Worker Center Watch website… The firm is led by Joseph Kefauver, formerly the president of public affairs for Walmart and government relations director for Darden Restaurants. Throughout the year, Parquet executives have toured the country, giving lectures to business groups on how to combat the rise of what has been called “alt-labor.”… The presentation offered questions for the group, including: “How Aggressive Can We Be?” and “How do We Challenge the Social Justice Narrative?”

And so, before it even had a chance to really get off the ground, Worker Center Watch’s credibility had been left in tatters, done in by its own shrill, sophomoric incompetence.  Now, only the laziest or most right-wing-echo-chamber journalists will give Mr. Williams and his attacks on the CIW the time of day.  With the DNA of Worker Center Watch revealed and its tactics exposed, the rest of the world can easily see through the industry front and its fog of lies.

So, story vetted, source vetted, both fail, problem solved.  Right?  Well, not quite…

The US Chamber of Commerce steps into the fray…

Turns out Williams and Worker Center Watch were never really alone.  

Immok_c0fcWhen you live in a small town like Immokalee and think of the Chamber of Commerce, you think of a local organization made up of neighbors and people you know that organizes community events like charity fundraisers, raffles, and barbecues.  The local branches tend to look out for the interests of the community as a whole, for economic development that benefits everyone.
Then there’s the US Chamber of Commerce.  The national version of the Chamber of Commerce is a highly ideological, staunchly anti-labor lobbying organization that sees the relationship between business and labor as strictly a zero sum game.  In its jaundiced view, a gain for workers is an equal and opposite loss for employers, no matter the circumstances.  
Such a perspective leaves little room for the subtleties of social responsibility, even in a context like that of southern agriculture, where for decades workers have suffered the most extreme abuses — from modern-day slavery to endemic sexual harassment and systemic wage theft.  Even in the fields, progress for workers is seen as a defeat for business and must be fought.
And that’s why the US Chamber of Commerce joined forces with Worker Center Watch and others in a coordinated attack on low-wage workers organizations across the country, including the CIW.  From the New York Times, “Advocates for Workers Raise the Ire of Business”:


After ignoring these groups for years, business groups and powerful lobbyists, heavily backed by the restaurant industry, are mounting an aggressive campaign against them, maintaining that they are fronts for organized labor.

Business officials say these groups often demonize companies unfairly and inaccurately, while the groups question why corporations have attacked such fledgling organizations.

The United States Chamber of Commerce issued a detailed report in November criticizing what it calls “progressive activist foundations” that donate millions of dollars to these groups, which are often called worker centers. The business-backed Worker Center Watch has asked Florida’s attorney general to investigate the finances of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. That group sponsored a protest last March in which more than 100 workers marched 200 miles to the headquarters of Publix supermarkets to urge it to pay more for tomatoes so farmworkers could be paid more.

bermanA prominent Washington lobbyist, Richard Berman (right), has run full-page ads attacking the Restaurant Opportunities Center, accusing it of intimidating opponents. He has even set up a separate website, ROCexposed.com, to attack the group…

… “There’s quite a range of activity among worker centers,” said Mr. Berman, whose lobbying firm has spawned numerous spinoff nonprofits, including the Center for Union Facts. “They have yet to reach the point of being a long-term problem. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce and Worker Center Watch appear to be associated in these attacks through a group called — with the Orwellian disingenuousness typical of these efforts — the Workforce Fairness Institute.  
According to its website, the WFI lists among its “allied groups” the Coalition for a Democratic WorkplaceRick Berman‘s Center for Union Facts, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business.  And according to WFI’s most recent 990, it paid FP1 Strategies — yes, the same FP1 Strategies where Ryan Williams is today a Senior Vice President — $234,000 in 2011 for “strategic consulting.”  Indeed, FP1 Strategies and WFI appear to share a telephone, as the contact number at the bottom of this 2013 press release from WFI — where it says “To schedule an interview with a Workeforce Fairness Institute, please contact…” —  is in fact the number listed for FP1 Stratgies by Google.  Such a tangled web…


“Voye woch, kache men”

There is a Haitian Creole expression — “voye woch, kache men” — which translated literally means “throwing rocks, hiding your hand.”  People like Ryan Williams and companies like FP1 Strategies don’t launch fully-formed public relations attack campaigns unless they are paid to do so.  Someone, somewhere is behind the attacks on the CIW and the other low-wage worker organizations, someone who has retained Williams and his colleagues to throw rocks for them.

Of course, once you start to peel back the layers of this particular onion, it’s not long before you run into companies that continue to fight the Fair Food Program, companies like Publix.  Here’s an example: Remember the Florida-based PR firm Parquet Public Affairs, the company that registered Worker Center Watch’s website and has been holding workshops across the country on how to fight organizations like the CIW and “shift the social justice narrative”?  Here’s the line-up for one of those presentations:
Those are two Parquet Public Affairs partners and none other than Michael VanDervort, the Labor Relations manager for Publix who has been present at just about every Publix protest the CIW has ever done.  Turns out Orlando-based Parquet is closely related to Publix and has appeared on several panels over the past year with Publix executives on the issue of worker centers. 
We could certainly continue pulling back the layers, and if we did, is there really any doubt that we would find some direct financial connection between the front groups attacking the CIW with lies and companies like Publix and Wendy’s?  But that’s not the point, really. 
The point is this:  Those lies have been tried before and failed.  Miserably.  Here’s what Burger King’s CEO John Chidsey said when his company signed a Fair Food agreement with the CIW, shortly after a Burger King Vice President was caught spearheading the same attack:

bk“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.”

“For more than 50 years, BKC has been a proud purchaser and supporter of the Florida tomato industry.  However, if the Florida tomato industry is to be sustainable long-term, it must become more socially responsible.  We, along with other industry leaders, recognize that the Florida tomato harvesters are in need of better wages, working conditions and respect for the hard work they do.  And we look forward to working with the CIW in the pursuit of these necessary improvements.  We also encourage other purchasers and growers of Florida tomatoes to engage in dialogue with the CIW in support of driving industry-wide socially responsible change.”

Lies have a very short half-life.  They may glow bright for a while, but they burnout quickly, and when they do, those who spread them are the ones who have to account for themselves.  

And when the lies burn away, as they inevitably do, the truth remains that consumers in the 21st century demand humane labor conditions for the men and women who pick, pack, and serve their food.  And the Fair Food Program is the most effective, most widely-recognized program in the country for ensuring just that.

In conclusion…


 OK… let’s climb back out of the muck and take a look around at what we have learned in this two-part series:
  1. The Fair Food Program has proven, after several years in operation, to be good for workers and good for business.  On the basis of its indisputable success in Florida’s tomato fields, the FFP has been hailed as a model for the protection of human rights in global supply chains by the United Nations Working Group for Business and Human Rights.  The transformation of the Florida tomato industry as a result of the the growers’ partnership with the CIW in the FFP has been nothing short of a renaissance for an industry that just four years ago was fighting for survival.  jax8And Walmart’s decision to join the FFP without ever having been the focus of any public campaign by the CIW underscores the value that mainstream businesses see in the Program’s unequaled ability to uproot and prevent longstanding human rights violations in the fields.
  2. Worker Center Watch is an industry-funded front group that, despite the proven value of the Fair Food Program for growers and retail food corporations alike, has launched a no-holds-barred campaign against the CIW that includes lies, innuendo, and sleazy tactics that are beneath even the depressingly low standards set by many right-wing attack organizations.
  3. The extremist Worker Center Watch has been joined in its campaign by the US Chamber of Commerce, which has used its position of relative respectability to attack the funding of the CIW and other low-wage worker organizations.  

The attacks on the CIW and the Fair Food Program are shameless.  Through its own buffoonery and ineffective strategy, Worker Center Watch has effectively disqualified itself.  At this point, if anyone takes Worker Center Watch seriously, it’s only because they want to, not because Worker Center Watch itself has even an ounce of credibility. 

But the US Chamber of Commerce is a different animal.  It is not a fly-by-night PR shop like Worker Center Watch.  So we have to ask: Does the US Chamber of Commerce really think that a return to agriculture’s brutal past is the best thing for business, whether that business grows tomatoes in Florida or sells them in your local produce aisle?  

atl1Social responsibility — real social responsibility that eliminates the human rights violations that cause public relations nightmares for retailers — is good for everyone, from workers to growers, buyers, and consumers.  While the US Chamber of Commerce clearly doesn’t hate America, there can be no question that its ideological blinders have it carrying water, intentionally or otherwise, for Florida’s principal competition — Mexican tomato producers — when it attacks the Fair Food Program.  

The success of the Fair Food Program is today one of the Florida tomato industry’s most valuable assets and has provided the state’s growers with the all-important opportunity to distinguish their product from Mexican tomatoes, where no such independent, worker-driven human rights program exists, and will not exist in the foreseeable future.  The Fair Food Program is not only responsible for astonishing improvements in the day-to-day lives of farmworkers in the fields, but for a remarkable reversal of fortune for the Florida tomato industry as a whole.  To attack the Fair Food Program is to attack, therefore, the Florida tomato industry itself, and that makes no sense whatsoever for an organization with the mission of the US Chamber of Commerce.

As we did with the introduction of this two-part series, we will give the last word to one of our partners in the Fair Food Program, Bon Appetit:


Statement from Bon Appetit Management Company, participating buyer in the Fair Food Program:

At Bon Appétit Management Company, we are proud to be partners with the CIW. In fact, we were the first food service company to work with the CIW and develop a Code of Conduct. We did so without having been the target of a single protest. We took action because everyone deserves to be paid fairly for their work, treated with respect, and protected from toxic work environments and the Campaign for Fair Food was our best tool in that effort.

We are quite concerned about the often disingenuous and potentially nefarious actions of so- called industry groups such as the Worker Center Watch.  As with other pseudo advocacy organizations such as the Center for Consumer Freedom (with whose representatives we’ve tangled before), WCW appears to be more concerned with tarnishing the image of well-known advocacy groups and cutting off their funding money than doing anything constructive.

We believe the motivation of the WCW does not lie with the “industry” it claims to represent — or at least they should not speak so broadly for all food companies. We are a well-known food service company that supports CIW in securing fair treatment of workers who harvest some of the food we serve.

– Maisie Ganzler, Vice President of Strategy, Bon Appétit Management Company