CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo on Nelson Peltz refusal to meet following massive march in NYC: “This was not as simple as refusing a group of people…”

“… It was an acceptance of the violence and sexual harassment that continues to happen in the fields.”

PHOTO REPORT: 250+ march to the New York offices of Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz to demand an end to sexual violence against women farmworkers!

During Manhattan’s packed rush hour on Monday evening, well over two hundred consumer allies from around New York City – and from as far away as Boston and Washington, DC – joined a group of two dozen farmworker women, men, and children from Immokalee to march from a Wendy’s franchise to the Park Avenue offices of Wendy’s Board Chairman, Nelson Peltz.  The march was the culmination of a jam-packed ten days of events and exhibits of the “Harvest without Violence” mobile museum around New York City, taking the CIW’s campaign to end sexual violence in the fields to thousands of New Yorkers and, eventually, straight to Mr. Peltz’s doorstep.

The backdrop…

As Chairman of the Board of Wendy’s, and as a major investor in the fast-food giant (who, between his own shares and those owned by his investment firm, Trian Partners, controls nearly a quarter of the company’s stock), Nelson Peltz has the power to address the issue of sexual violence in Wendy’s supply chain.  Instead, Wendy’s has gone the exact opposite route under Mr. Peltz’s leadership.  Several years ago, the fast-food giant actually shifted its tomato purchases away from the Florida tomato industry — where the strongest protections against sexual violence in the agricultural industry today are in place thanks to the Fair Food Program — to the Mexican produce industry, where sexual violence is endemic and goes effectively unchecked.  In doing so, Mr. Peltz, who chairs Wendy’s Board Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility, ignored the urgent words of advice from his fellow corporate executive, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.  Ms. Sandberg was quoted in a recent New York Times editorial on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, saying:

“If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are a man or a woman — especially when you are in power — you are responsible, too.”

That same editorial singled out the CIW’s Fair Food Program as a national model for addressing, and eradicating, sexual violence against women at work, adding, “Fourteen businesses are part of the program; many more should join.”

More recently, for nearly two months ahead of Monday’s big protest, Mr. Peltz and Wendy’s CEO, Todd Penegor, ignored the CIW’s Women’s Group’s powerful letter describing in moving detail how the Fair Food Program has fundamentally changed their lives and requesting a face-to-face meeting to discuss the harsh reality of sexual abuse facing farmworker women that remain outside of the FFP’s unique protections.  The letter read in part:

… Day in and day out, four out of five farmworker women are at least subjected to vulgar comments and jokes by crew leaders and fellow workers, and all too frequently find themselves pulled to the edge of the field by a crew leader demanding sex in exchange for necessary work…  Because it is easy to lose sight of the often dramatic personal impacts of a social accountability campaign, we would like to share our individual experiences with you during an in-person meeting.  We truly believe you may see the FFP in a different light if you hear how fundamentally it has changed our lives, and those of countless other women.

And still Mr. Peltz remained silent, refusing to meet with CIW Women’s Group member or even to politely decline their invitation. 

Mr. Peltz’s silence was deafening, and demanded a response.  

A call to action!…

The CIW has never been known to take rejection sitting down.  Nor, for that matter, has the Fair Food Nation.

With that shameful history as the backdrop, the CIW Women’s Group traveled to New York to deliver their message to Mr. Peltz in person, and called on allies across New York City and across the Northeast to join them in holding Mr. Peltz to account for turning his back on the epidemic of sexual violence in the fields.  And so the call was sounded for a gathering of Fair Food allies in Manhattan this past Monday, where CIW members in New York began the day by joining forces with their steadfast rabbinic allies from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (pictured below outside Mr. Peltz’s Park Avenue office).  It was, in fact, not the first time T’ruah had sent a delegation of rabbis up to 280 Park Ave’s 41st floor, to the offices of Trian Partners, in an effort to meet with Mr Peltz.

Not unexpectedly, the farmworkers and rabbis made it no further than the lobby with the CIW’s letter, stopped just inside the building doors by security that appeared to have been waiting for them.  With their letter still in hand, the group was quickly instructed to exit.

Once back on the public sidewalk, the farmworkers and their rabbi allies unfurled their banners (pictured below) and began to chant, “Nelson Peltz, escucha, mujeres en la lucha!” (Nelson Peltz, listen up, we women are in the struggle!) and “Nelson Peltz, shame on you, farmworkers are people, too!”

It was an invigorating start to the day, but the real action was still hours away.  Later that day — after the CIW Women’s Group spent much of the afternoon meeting with nail salon workers from Workers United, who are leading their own campaign for dignity in the workplace — the sun began to set behind Midtown’s famous skyline as farmworkers from Immokalee and their allies gathered outside of a Wendy’s restaurant near Grand Central Station before the march to Trian Partners.  Represented in force among the allies were students from New York’s private and public high schools and universities including New York University, Columbia and Barnard Colleges, and St. John’s University in Queens; clergy and lay leaders from over a dozen area churches, synagogues, and mosques, from Brooklyn to Harlem; and representatives from the city’s many grassroots and worker organizations.  DC Fair Food and Montclair, NJ’s Fair Food committee were also present, alongside allies who had traveled from as far as Boston!

All answered the CIW’s call with one simple, unifying message in mind:

After a welcome from CIW’s Julia De la Cruz (below), who had spent the previous ten days criss-crossing New York displaying the Harvest without Violence Mobile Exhibit in public venues throughout the city, the group took a moment of silence to commemorate transgender lives lost to another pernicious expression of gender-based violence, in honor of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

And then, with the CIW farmworker women and children leading the way, chanting “Boycott Wendy’s” at the top of their lungs, the marchers were off!

Progressively swelling in energy and size as allies continued to arrive and join in the protest, the growing march finally turned the corner onto Park Avenue:

And again, the marchers’ message was unequivocal:

“Freedom from Sexual Violence”…  A Fifth Freedom, perhaps, for the 21st Century?  With today’s massive and growing resistance to sexual harassment and assault promising to usher in a new age of dignity and respect for women in the workplace, it is hardly farfetched to think that it could indeed be time to carve out a new addition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s hallowed Four Freedoms that set the stage for the modern era of human rights defense around the globe.

As the march neared 280 Park Ave, the protesters’ colorful signs and heartfelt chants managed to make a dramatic splash, despite the towering buildings around them.

Upbeat music courtesy of Rude Mechanical Orchestra (who have faithfully accompanied the CIW for many a march in the Big Apple…) helped to keep spirits high!

Finally, the marchers converged outside of Trian Partners in full force, making sure that all who passed by understood that freedom from sexual violence for farmworkers required Nelson Peltz’s immediate attention, and they were here as consumers and farmworkers alike, to demand that attention.

In solidarity with their compañeras in the struggle for dignity in the fields – a transformation of agriculture that ultimately creates a safer, more respectful, and comfortable workplace for men and women alike — the farmworker men of Immokalee who had accompanied the CIW Women’s Group on their journey north also made their voices heard outside of Mr. Peltz’s offices.

As the crowd loudly continued to call Wendy’s and Nelson Peltz to account for the company’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program, a delegation of farmworker women and allies made a second attempt to deliver their letter to Mr. Peltz’s offices.  This time, the group didn’t even make it to the security desk before being turned away.

First out of the building — and with the sting of the delegation’s callous rejection at the hands of the security team still fresh in her heart — CIW Women’s Group member Nely Rodriguez launched into a high-spirited “Boycott Wendy’s” chant that, taken up by the hundreds-strong crowd gathered outside 280 Park Avenue, reverberated off the skyscrapers and soared above the din of the rush hour traffic.

Of course, the extravagant building’s floor to ceiling glass walls rendered the entire disappointing episode plainly visible to all the supporters gathered outside, their energy now galvanized even further to make their witness count.

The protest then continued with all eyes trained on the building’s illuminated lobby and the floors above, where somewhere on the 41st floor, Mr. Peltz’s colleagues (and, perhaps, even Mr. Peltz himself) must have found it increasingly difficult to go on ignoring the sexual abuse behind their rich profits. (Throughout the day, Trian Partners’ phone line experienced a flood of calls from allies across the country demanding that Wendy’s join the Fair Food Program once and for all.)

The delegation’s return kicked off the final rally, which was dynamically emceed by former Alliance for Fair Food organizer, and current New York City resident, Elena Stein (below):

The CIW’s Silvia Perez (below), one of the founding members of the CIW’s Women’s Group, was first up to report on the delegation’s attempt to deliver the letter to Mr. Peltz.  Referring to Wendy’s recent empty responses to the campaign, Silvia explained why workers continue to demand the restaurant’s participation in the Fair Food Program: “They say they have a code of conduct that’s working – it may be working in their heads, but it’s not working for workers. What they are doing is not fair, and we are going to keep fighting.”

The Rev. Michael Livingston (below), Executive Minister of the historic Riverside Church (where the group of two dozen farmworkers and children stayed throughout the weekend leading up to Monday’s march) followed:

“Listen, we’ve been thrown out of better places than this!  They’re afraid to talk to us.  They’re afraid of farmworker women and their children… We cannot eat food from a place where women are not safe in the fields and protected from abuse.  We can’t do that as human beings, and especially as people of faith.”

Rev. Livingston noted not only the Wendy’s Boycott endorsements by major denominations, but also the exciting news of the recent endorsement by the Episcopal Diocese of New York!  Rev. Livingston also let the crowd know that he and eight other NYC-area clergy are committed to participating in January 18th’s National Day of Fasting and Witness in the Wendy’s Boycott.

Fellow delegation participant Ruth Messinger (standing behind Rev. Livingston, former President and CEO of the American Jewish World Service, also spoke, sharing her thoughts on the delegation’s rejection and leading the group in yet another “Boycott Wendy’s” chant!

Rev. Michael Livingston (left) and Ruth Messinger (right)

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of T’ruah (below) then recounted the morning’s extraordinary events during first delegation – and the first rejection – of the day.

Members of the Student/Farmworker Alliance, representing thousands of students across the country, were next to step up to the mic.  Quayneshia Smith, whose commitment has led her to Immokalee, where she is currently an Alliance for Fair Food intern, spoke of students’ demand of Mr. Peltz in solidarity with farmworker women: “On behalf of students nationally, we are not only boycotting Wendy’s, but we are demanding that Nelson Peltz use his power in the supply chain to end the abuses that are happening.”

Patricia Murphy of UMass Amherst spoke from the perspective of student activists working to end sexual abuse in their own contexts:

“As students, we face sexual violence on our campuses. 65 percent of women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault and harassment. But in the fields, this number is 80 percent. Even though sexual harassment and assault are systemic issues, the Coalition has found a way to end this in the fields through the Fair Food Program!  But Wendy’s has said NO to this!  They have said NO to signing on, and to protecting farmworker women.  As students, we have the power not only as consumers, but as people who are also in this fight to say NO.  To boot Wendy’s off of our campuses, to boot the braids, until Nelson Peltz signs onto the Fair Food Program!”

Next, the youth of Immokalee, who had accompanied their mothers on the thousand-plus-mile journey from Florida to New York, took the stage next – explaining how “we are here, shoulder to shoulder with our mothers, who are also fighting for us.”

Jorge, one of the youth from Immokalee, declared:

“We know that our mothers and other women working in the fields face sexual harassment and lots of other things that we don’t like. We will keep fighting for our mothers until Wendy’s signs the agreement!” Another of the kids, Hervin, resoundingly agreed: “We’re here because Nelson Peltz and Wendy’s do not want to join the Fair Food Program. We’re out here because Wendy’s is going to Mexico and other countries to get its tomatoes, and in Mexico some farmworkers face sexual harassment, and we don’t like that.”

Meanwhile, their mothers, of course, looked on with pride:

To introduce the farmworker women and their critical message for Nelson Peltz, the New York-based Peace Poets led the crowd in bilingual song sung “so they can hear you upstairs, so they can hear you in these cars, so they hear you across the country!”

Then, finally, the farmworker women from Immokalee stepped between the crowd and Mr. Peltz’s building to deliver the rallying cry in the Harvest without Violence campaign, the campaign to eliminate sexual abuse in the fields.

One by one, the CIW Women’s Group representatives expressed the support they felt from all of the allies gathered in New York City that night. Doña Antonia, in New York for the first time, drew from her experience in the fields: “I am here because it’s important that you know, behind the produce you buy, there is a lot of suffering, a lot of pain, and injustice.”

They recounted how this reality has changed on farms where the Fair Food Program has taken effect – but in the same breath, reminded the crowd of how it still thrives on the many, many farms outside of the Program.  The CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo closed it off with these powerful words:

“It doesn’t matter which country we’re from, which language we speak, which color is our skin. We are human beings, we are women, and nobody is going to tread on our dignity.

It’s time to take the hand of the person that’s next to you, to walk together.  Let us not abandon each other, let us not leave each other.  Wendy’s will sign.  Sooner or later, they will come to the table of dialogue, and we will feel so proud to walk together with them in this struggle.”

Wendy’s will, one day, take responsibility for the sexual violence that persists in the Mexican tomato industry from which it sources its tomatoes today, and for the company’s decision to turn its back on the Florida tomato industry and reject the Fair Food Program’s proven protections against abuse.  It is only a question of when that happens, not if.  Nelson Peltz, too, will exercise his responsibility as a man in power and be an agent of change in ending this generations-old problem in the agricultural industry.  He, too, cannot turn back time.

We’ll close toady’s report with a gorgeous gallery of photos taken by former Alliance for Fair Food staff member Jake Ratner.  Check out the gallery on Facebook and share it widely!