Part Two: “We are not victims — we are not asking for charity, we are calling for justice!”

CIW’s Nely Rodriguez addresses 70+ allies from Columbus in front of Wendy’s Headquarters, holding aloft a quilt created by the farmworker women of Immokalee.

Farmworker Women to Wendy’s executives: “We want to work with dignity in the fields.”

Last Sunday, farmworkers stood alongside religious leaders from across the city of Columbus, Wendy’s hometown, for a moving interfaith service at First Congregational United Church of Christ.  The next morning, it was time for action. 

With spirits buoyed by the support of the Columbus community, CIW members headed to Ohio State University carrying a beautiful quilt composed of patches stitched together and designed by Immokalee farmworkers.  The quilt gave voice to the workers’ experiences with sexual harassment and violence in the fields, to their thoughts on the extraordinary transformation brought about by the Fair Food Program, and to their firm belief that Wendy’s will one day join them in the struggle to build a more humane agricultural industry.  They arrived — accompanied by OSU students who fasted for seven days in support of the OSU Boot the Braids Campaign last spring — at the university President’s office, prepared to share the quilt, and their urgent concerns, with OSU President Michael Drake:

Unfortunately, if not unsurprisingly, the delegation was met not by President Drake, who never appeared during their visit, but by a secretary. Part way through the delegation, Ann Hamilton, Vice President of Communications for OSU, happened to stop by the President’s office just in time to receive the powerful messages from the Women’s Group, one after the other:

Nely Rodriguez:  Women from Immokalee have traveled all the way from Florida in order to deliver a message.  It is time for President Drake to make the right decision and cut the contract with Wendy’s.  It’s important for the admin to listen to the voices of women.  You cannot deny the experiences right here in front of you.  We have the support of students and we will continue in this fight.

Wendy’s knows the conditions that exist, and yet they continue to make this decision to purchase from farms that allow sexual violence and in which there are no protections for workers.  We need support from OSU to end these abuses.

Mary Santos:  You really need to read the messages written here.  Each of us wrote these experiences down, and we are not alone, we are many, many women.  We are thousands of women who work in the fields.  We know that Wendy’s buys tomatoes from Mexico, and there is even more violence there than what we experience in Florida.  Imagine, they put children as small as this child in the fields to work.  I tell you this because when I was only 10 years old in Mexico, I went to harvest.  And after I arrived here, I only found more abuse.

Ana Jimenez:  Thank you for your time.  We are few, but we came with all of the energy of the women who stayed to work in the fields, who could not come.  We are here representing them with their thoughts, their feelings, because many of them have suffered violence.  It has been generation after generation of abuse.  We want to be valued, to be counted.  Wendy’s must accept our demand to join the Fair Food Program.  Wendy’s may continue to reject our call, but we will be resilient and stay here until they make the right choice.

In spite of the perfunctory reception from university administrators, CIW members emerged from the President’s office with even greater determination, bolstered by the support of OSU students:

Later on that same Monday afternoon, farmworkers began to gather in Dublin, Ohio, across the highway from Wendy’s Headquarters.  And they were not alone.  Scores of students, faith leaders, and community members arrived, undaunted by the cold and drizzling rain, to stand with the workers from Immokalee, including representatives from Faith in Public Life, First Congregational Church, the First Unitarian Universalists of Columbus, the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, The Little Minyan Kehillah, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Franklinton Farms, the Central Ohio Workers Center, Working America, AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance, OSU Real Food Challenge, Clarion University College Democrats (who drove all the way from Pennsylvania!).

In spite of the increasingly long and loud picket growing outside the windows of their corporate offices — and the letter of invitation to a meeting sent months earlier by the Women’s Group — Wendy’s representatives informed the police that they would not to come face-to-face with the women from Immokalee’s fields, instead choosing to remain hidden behind the tall glass doors of their headquarters.  (According to the police, the decision came straight from Wendy’s Director of Communications, Heidi Schauer, the very same representative who has claimed falsely to the press that the Fair Food Penny per Pound premium is in fact a “fee” to CIW.)

After marching in the rain, the boisterous group gathered into a circle for a final, powerful reflection.  After a blessing from Rev. Tim Ahrens, student fasters from Ohio State University took the mic, standing shoulder to shoulder with the women from Immokalee who had driven thousands of miles to knock on Wendy’s door.

Intrepid and clear-eyed as ever, Alex Hoey and Reyna Lusson addressed the crowd.  Their remarks hit the mark so perfectly that we include them here in full:

This week, more than 12 million people spoke out to share personal stories of sexual violence using the hashtag #MeToo.  One of the largest demographics who participated was students, across all genders and identities.  Many cases of sexual assault on campus go unreported for fear of backlash and retaliation. 

Another demographic that faces a striking level of sexual violence that goes largely unreported is farmworker women.  This group cannot be left out of this conversation.  Pressure to exchange sex for daily work and other unwanted advances from supervisors are daily occurrences for farmworker women.  Farmworker women are forced to choose between their dignity and feeding their families.  Under the CIW’s Fair Food Program, workers can safely and confidentially report abuses without fear of retribution.  We are honored to have the CIW Women’s Group here in Columbus today.  These women have sacrificed time with their family and their first opportunity to work after the hurricane to courageously speak out against gender-based violence. 

We are here today calling on Wendy’s to witness this ongoing struggle and take a stand against sexual violence in the workplace by finally signing the Fair Food Agreement.  We are also here today to condemn OSU’s complicity in these ongoing human rights abuses. Despite years of students and community members demanding that Wendy’s be kicked off campus, OSU quietly and cowardly renewed their contract with Wendy’s after students had left for the summer. 

As students and farmworkers cry “Me too,” Wendy’s and OSU respond: “Too bad”.

OSU students are not alone in their Boot the Braids campaign.  They stand alongside students across the country who demand that their universities stand on the side of farmworker justice.  This week alone, 15 other student groups have organized actions in solidarity with farmworker women.  By connecting the struggle of these two demographics who face rampant sexual violence, we are stronger and more determined than ever.  We will soon realize a day where farmworkers will no longer have to sacrifice their dignity in order to feed their families.

Following more calls to action and declarations of solidarity from allies across many Ohio communities, the CIW Women’s Group brought the event to a close, thanking the many allies for standing with them in the fight to end sexual violence in agriculture, and vowing to return with even greater force in the months ahead — for as long as it takes to bring Wendy’s into the Fair Food fold.  In the words of CIW’s Carmen Esquivel:

As part of the CIW Women’s Group, we thank you for being a part of this struggle.  Although our group is small, we have brought the messages and the spirit of our compañeras in Immokalee, and we also brought this quilt, which represents their experiences.   Even if takes months or years more, we will be here and continue until Wendy’s does the right thing.  It doesn’t matter if it is cold or raining, we will be out here.  We are not victims — we are not asking for charity, we are calling for justice.  We want to work with dignity in the fields.

Wendy’s needs to understand that the solution cannot be found in taking its purchases outside of the country, but rather only in joining with the other major companies who have become a part of the Program.  Maybe we have not made any money today from working in the fields, but we will earn a great deal more in being able to work with dignity tomorrow.

Public awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence against women is reaching an all-time high.  As some of society’s most powerful men are stripped of their power and status after assaulting and harassing women with impunity for decades, Wendy’s unconscionable decision to shift its purchases away from Florida — and away from a program proven to prevent gender-based abuse — to Mexico, where sexual violence against women is so prevalent it has been termed a “pandemic” by public officials, will not go unchallenged.  Wendy’s executives no longer have the option to turn a blind eye to the experiences of the women in the company’s supply chain, because those experiences have been brought to their doorstep.

The time has come, as the movement to end violence against women gains momentum from California to Florida, for those executives to choose which side of history they are on, one way or another.