Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wendy’s – Say “YES – Me Too” to Just Treatment of Tomato Workers

By Cantor Jack Chomsky

Chanukah has come and gone on our Jewish calendar, but our sense of trying to bring the light of freedom in a world with too much darkness continues.  Human Rights Shabbat is being observed in many congregations the Shabbat of December 6-7 or December 13-14 -- and International Human Rights Day is observed on December 10.

There are so many issues for us to consider.  As Co-President of Columbus' BREAD Organization, I am conscious of the new problem we at BREAD have selected -- mental health, as well as some of the problems BREAD has developed into solutions in recent years -- school truancy, restorative justice, discrimination against immigrants in our community.  And my synagogue's observance of Human Rights Shabbat focused in part on the terrible problems attributable to gun violence as we mark one year since the tragic events of Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

I'd like to turn our attention for a moment -- or at least a week or two -- to another justice issue in our community which has national implications.  This has to do with Wendy's treatment of tomato growers.  Here in Columbus, Wendy's has a stellar reputation as a community leader and loveable Columbus symbol.  The late Dave Thomas was, on-screen and off, a symbol of decency and civic virtue.  How sad I was to learn that Wendy's does not have a reputation of fairness or decency in its treatment of agricultural workers in Florida. 

The good news is that a historic partnership among farmworkers, the vast majority of Florida tomato growers, and eleven leading corporations is rooting out forced labor and other human rights abuses from the fields. The Fair Food Program combines a strict code of conduct, worker-to-worker education, a complaint resolution process and market consequences for non-compliance, constituting the most advanced human rights program in the domestic produce industry today. Now, farmworkers are reporting a historic shift in the fields: access to shade and water, an effective form of recourse for abuse, and the first wage increase in over 30 years.

Here in Ohio, however, more and more attention has been focused in recent months on Wendy's unwillingness to join all of the other largest fast food businesses -- McDonald's, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell -- in agreeing to join the program and ensure human rights for the farmworkers in their supply chain. 

While each of those other corporations has signed on to support the fair treatment of tomato workers, Wendy's has refused repeatedly, even engaging in a misleading advertising campaign to combat allegations about the issue. Wendy’s claims, for instance, to already be paying a premium for its Florida tomatoes, but whatever premium they are paying most certainly is not being monitored by the auditing systems of the Fair Food Program and is not going to alleviate the abject poverty suffered by the workers who have picked Wendy’s tomatoes for decades.

This week, as Wendy’s opens its “flagship store,” celebrating the history of Wendy’s and the values of founder Dave Thomas, I encourage people to join with representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) at the new Wendy’s location (complete with beautiful Wendy’s “historical artifacts”) at 6480 Riverside Drive in Dublin, OH at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, December 16.    We want to encourage them to live up the values that Dave Thomas espoused -- to step out in front, to be a responsible corporation alongside its peer corporations. 
Jews are commanded, according to our tradition, to take care about what we eat.  It’s not realistic to expect Wendy’s to follow Jewish law and make their establishments kosher (although a choice Wendy’s in a choice location could follow that route!) but it IS realistic to expect them to follow decent employment practices—and to refrain from eating in them if they don’t.

This issue has been a nationwide focus for T’ruah—The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization of over 1800 rabbis and cantors.  It is consistent with their ongoing efforts to combat slavery and human trafficking in today’s world.

Many readers will remember Wendy's very funny and very successful "Where's the Beef?" ad campaign of almost 30 years ago.  Lately, they have chosen a "Wendy" character whose smart-alecky approach to her friends shows that Wendy's is the smart place to go.  With just a little effort, Wendy's can do the smart thing and be more worth your fast-food dollar.

Here's to working together to make sure that comes to pass. 
Cantor Jack Chomsky serves Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. Co-President of the BREAD Organization, he is also Immediate Past President of the Cantors Assembly.

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