PART 1: Ohio State University and the 4 for Fair Food Tour

Ohio State University student fasters at the culmination of their seven-day fast in March 2017.

On International Women’s Day, Ohio State University students will join with farmworkers to march on the president’s office and demand an end to Wendy’s contract following years of broken promises by President Michael Drake…

Today we bring you the first of our four-part series diving deeper into the particular context of each of the “4 for Fair Food” Tour’s stops, beginning with the flagship school in the nationwide Boot the Braids campaign: The Ohio State University. 

After years of courageous student-led actions at OSU’s Columbus campus, including an historic seven-day fast by 19 students and community members, OSU students are fed up with President Michael Drake’s trail of broken promises.  And they are not alone.  Over the years, the students’ tireless efforts have garnered the support of countless people of faith and other consumers of conscience in the Columbus community as well as across the country, and they are joining forces this year in a coalition for action that promises a protest to remember!

This year, the OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance is stronger than ever, and together with farmworkers and community members, the Student/Farmworker Alliance will march to President Drake’s doorstep on March 8th, to demand that the President finally be the person he claims he wants to be: “a national leader in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct.”

A brief look back at how we got here…

Before getting into the details of the upcoming 4 for Fair Food action at OSU, let’s turn back the clock and review a few of the critical milestones in the history of the Campaign for Fair Food at OSU.

  • In 2014, students at Ohio State University launched the Boot the Braids Campaign on campus, demanding that administrators end OSU’s contract with Wendy’s.  In the early days of the Campaign, President Drake and the university administration seemed to be listening: In that same year, administrators added a clause to their contract with Wendy’s that they would not renew with the fast food giant “unless the concerns of the Student/Farmworker Alliance were satisfied.”
OSU student fasters during the March 26th Parade for Human Rights in Columbus, Ohio (2017)
  • Three years later, in 2017, in spite of growing outrage over Wendy’s indefensible stance on farmworkers’ human rights, President Drake had taken no steps to end OSU’s relationship with Wendy’s.  Frustrated by the lack of progress, in March of that year, 19 students at OSU as well as members of the Columbus community took the extraordinary step of launching a fast on campus for an entire week, refusing food and demanding that the University live up to its original promise to satisfy the concerns of the OSU Student/Farmworker Alliance.  The deeply inspiring action, which culminated with the arrival of the CIW’s Return to Human Rights Tour to campus, sparked a rolling student fast in support of the Wendy’s Boycott across a dozen schools around the country, involving hundreds of young people.
  • In May of 2017 – despite the singularly impressive efforts of OSU students and farmworkers to educate the university administration – President Drake and his administration made the unconscionable decision to renew OSU’s contract with Wendy’safter students had left the campus on summer break.

In spite of President Drake’s abject failure to demonstrate moral leadership, the Wendy’s Boycott has only grown stronger since 2017, both on OSU’s campus and across the country.  And in June of 2018, Wendy’s bowed to two years of mounting consumer pressure, and announced that it would be pulling its purchases from farms in Mexico – where human rights abuses are as ubiquitous as they are well-documented – and instead shift its sourcing to greenhouses in the U.S. and Canada.  However, Wendy’s again stopped short of joining the Fair Food Program, instead continuing to rely solely on its own corporate-controlled auditing schemes and public relations stunts to deflect criticism.

A word on those auditing schemes… In the midst of the 2017 fast, Fordham Law School Professor, former OSU Law faculty member, and a former member of OSU’s University Labor Advisory Committee, James Brudney, published a searing letter to the editor in OSU’s newspaper, clearly laying out the many ways in which Wendy’s useless auditing protocols – devoid of worker participation, transparency, and any real enforcement – were bound to fail, regardless of geography.  This letter is as relevant today as it was two years ago, and goes to the heart of why OSU’s stance on its Wendy’s contract is, in itself, a sham.  We will conclude this brief review of the history of the Campaign with just a few key excerpts from Professor Brudney’s piece (you can read the full letter here):

… The Wendy’s approach — a voluntary corporate code of conduct, backed by corporate self-monitoring — has for many years been dismissed as inadequate with respect to supply chain production.  Countless studies and reports — by human rights specialists, international organizations, and scholars — confirm that internal corporate monitoring effectively invites suppliers to engage in deceptive practices. These widespread practices include keeping double sets of books; concealing workplace hazards; scripting worker participation while chilling genuine worker input; and relying on top-down examination of documentary records rather than time-consuming investigation of working conditions on the shop floor or in the fields. Sadly, voluntary codes like the one promulgated by Wendy’s are too often little more than a sham…

… Twenty-five years ago, few observers in this country would have thought that what CIW and FFP have accomplished was conceivable, given centuries of oppressed farm labor in the U.S. — including over 200 years of slavery, a century of sharecropper exploitation, and decades of abusive conditions for the migrant workers who today comprise the bulk of the agricultural workforce. The FFP and CIW have secured basic… protections for tens of thousands of tomato pickers. But they have not achieved total success, and their campaigns continue in Florida and elsewhere. It is unfortunate that Wendy’s, virtually alone among major fast food brands in the U.S., has so far chosen not to join this effort. I hope that at Ohio State, administrators can listen to the students’ concerns and recognize the difference between a genuine and effective program preventing supply chain exploitation of workers and a set of expectations.

So the OSU campaign continues, with a massive march this coming International Women’s Day!…

When OSU first renewed its contract with Wendy’s, we offered these words about President Drake’s decision, and a preview of what was to come in the Campaign.  Still today, in 2019, the analysis rings true:

[The OSU administration has demonstrated a] fear of alienating a corporate neighbor. Fear of taking a stand for fundamental human rights, despite the fact that more than a dozen corporations, dozens of universities, and tens of thousands of consumers had already blazed that path before OSU was faced with the decision. Even fear of their own students, causing administrators to put off the announcement until students were safely back at home and unable to react.

So, while President Drake and his administration opt for business as usual with Wendy’s in Columbus, human rights violations will go on in the fields, and they will go unchecked. You can be as sure of that as you can of the sun coming up.

And students at OSU will escalate their fight to cut the Wendy’s contract, and their fight will garner growing support from around the country. That, too, is guaranteed by this decision.

All of which could have been avoided if President Drake and his administration had employed a bit more logic and principle, and chosen to support real human rights and dignity in the university’s supply chain.

Instead, students, faculty, faith leaders, human rights experts, and farmworkers are left with no option but to prepare for the battle that lies ahead in Columbus.

Building off the anger and determination generated by that fateful decision by President Drake, farmworkers, students, and community leaders will be converging again this year in Columbus for a massive march through the heart of town and straight to the doorstep of the President.  In light of President Drake’s flagrant disregard for the voices of farmworker women, who warned explicitly of the ongoing sexual harassment and assault their fellow farmworkers were facing right now even as Wendy’s refuses to join the Fair Food Program, we have timed the protest for March 8th, International Women’s Day.  Here are the quick details (and a list of caravans headed that way):

Where? Goodale Park, 120 W Goodale St, Columbus, OH
Gathering at 2:00 PM, stepping off at 3:00 PM
Ximena Pedroza,

Just one more thing: More truly disturbing news emerges on OSU’s position on sexual violence against women…

In case President Drake’s decision to renew the Wendy’s contract were not enough of a slap in the face to farmworker women who face the threat of sexual harassment and assault every day they go to work to pick our fruits and vegetables, the OSU administration has been embroiled this past year in yet another scandal over the rights of sexual violence survivors.  To summarize a complex story:  In early 2018, the University received a slew of complaints against the staff of its Sexual Civility and Empowerment (SCE) office, the place on campus where students could seek support after being sexually assaulted.  Shockingly, according to the Columbus Dispatch, instead of finding support and desperately-needed resources, “some survivors were subjected to victim-blaming, unethical and re-traumatizing treatment by SCE advocates. Some victims were told they were lying or delusional, suffered from mental illness, had an active imagination, didn’t understand their own experience or fabricated their story.”

To make matters worse, the administration decided to permanently close the SCE office altogether in the wake of these revelations, directing students instead to other disparate offices around campus in the event of sexual assault – and a hotline that goes straight to voicemail.  Predictably, the administration was barraged with angry letters from students, faculty and community members, demanding that OSU institute functional, respectful, and centralized services for survivors of sexual violence – not simply close down the failed center.

In an attempt to calm the storm, President Drake responded with some familiar-sounding promises and assurances:

“Ohio State will do all that we can to be a national leader in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct,” Ohio State President Michael V. Drake said in a statement. “Our campuses must be safe places for all members of our community to learn, work and grow. We remain steadfastly and unwaveringly committed to this goal.”

In another article, President Drake’s executive vice president and provost, Bruce McPheron, added:

“This is an immensely important issue, and Ohio State is committed to having the very best systems in place to support and protect our students, faculty and staff.”

When you compare these strong words – “Ohio State will do all that we can to be a national leader in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct,” and “Ohio State is committed to having the very best systems in place” – to President Drake’s actual record on sexual violence against farmworker women, the hypocrisy is rank.  If anything, Ohio State has shown itself to be a national leader in turning a blind eye to the ugly reality of sexual violence in the fields by inexplicably insisting on doing business with the only major fast food company yet to join the Fair Food Program, a program described by PBS Frontline as “unique in the country” in its ability to prevent the epidemic of sexual violence in agriculture.

And as to putting “the very best systems in place” to deal with sexual violence, Ohio State has opted to rely on a system — Wendy’s woefully inadequate and opaque in-house social responsibility scheme — that has been characterized as “little more than a sham” by one of the world’s foremost human rights experts, and former OSU law professor, James Brudney.

In other words, President Drake is either trying to fool himself about the real world impact of his decisions on the lives of survivors of sexual violence, both in OSU’s supply chain and on its campus, or trying to fool the public about the kind of leader he wants to be. 

Regardless, the opportunity to play a true leadership role – and to protect OSU from the fallout when, as seems inevitable, headlines trumpet human rights abuses in Wendy’s supply chain – is still on the table.  The administration could, and should, leverage its considerable purchasing power by being the first university to cut its contract with Wendy’s — as the University of Chicago was during the seminal Taco Bell boycott.  That decision led more than two dozen other schools to follow suit, which collectively represented real market power — and a disastrous public relations trend among a key market demographic — that Taco Bell could not ignore.  The University of Chicago sparked a chain reaction that played a significant role in bringing Taco Bell to the table and laid the foundation for all the unprecedented human rights gains that ultimately followed for tens of thousands of farmworkers thanks to the Fair Food Program. 

That is what being a “national leader” looks like.  That is what it means to put principles into action.  And that is the context at OSU as the “4 for Fair Food” Tour rolls into town on International Women’s Day next month.

Register to join us on March 8th in Columbus, and make your voice heard in the growing call for fundamental human rights in our food system!