October 19, 2021
There’s an idyllic, pastoral image that runs through dairy marketing. Green hills, red barns, black and white cows: that’s the image that the new “Fair Trade Dairy” label is selling. But that label papers over a long history of exploitation.
This episode, we talk to Crispin Hernandez of the Workers’ Center of Central New York. He’s milked cows and put in long hours on farms selling to Chobani and he knows that the conditions are far from “fair.” He describes the real victories that farmworkers and human rights activists have won through organizing – and why Fair Trade USA’s new “Fair Trade Dairy” label is being opposed by the very people it claims to benefit.
Topics covered include:
- Chobani and Fair Trade USA’s new partnership in the “Fair Trade Dairy” label that claims to promote “Worker Wellbeing.”
- What a typical day looks like from the perspective of someone who has milked cows on farms selling to Chobani.
Just because the pay is low, doesn’t mean it’s low skilled work – the skill and care that goes into working in a dairy barn.
- Crispin and his fellow farm workers organize for better working conditions and recognition of their fundamental rights.
- “No Blood in Milk,” how farmworkers and allies take action against workplace abuses.
- How plantation agriculture and outdated laws leave farmworkers vulnerable to exploitation.
- Crispin and the Workers Center of Central New York win a historic case that grants new protections for all farmworkers in New York State.
Do you work on a farm participating in the “Fair Trade Dairy” program? We want to hear about your experiences. Send a message to [email protected] or call (800) 631-9980.
Learn more about Crispin’s work and the Workers’ Center of Central New York at https://www.workerscny.org/en/home/
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El episodio en español está debajo
Season 2, Episode One:
It seems like every snack gets pitched these days as healthy, and good for you. One of the products at the top of that list is Greek yogurt. And Chobani is at the front of that pack of yogurt brands. It’s the most consumed yogurt brand in the United States, with more than 44 million people in the US reportedly eating Chobani yogurt.
I’m Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project, and this season, we’re going to be looking at Chobani’s yogurt. It’s a brand on the rise – growing faster than many tech companies over the past 15 years. They’re business press darlings, with a CEO who gets a lot of coverage for doing some genuinely good things for the people who work in his manufacturing plants, like offering stock to workers that gives them an ownership share in the company.
<NBC News clip>
“Finally a big surprise for a brand many Americans love, Chobani yogurts rose from the ground up to become a multi-billion dollar sensation and we were there exclusively today when the CEO gave a gift that is turning employees into owners and a few future millionaires.”
Earlier this year, Chobani stepped up its feel-good branding and partnered with Fair Trade USA to release a “fair trade dairy” option in grocery stores across the country. But since they first announced this plan, it has been strongly opposed by those who would seemingly be its most essential stakeholders and advocates: farmworkers and worker and human rights groups.
So how does a company that’s giving out stock shares to its workers end up at odds with worker and human rights watchdogs?
This season, we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of Chobani yogurt and talk to the people who are building real, transformative solutions that all of us can feel good about supporting.
And while you’re here, be sure to follow For a Better World podcast on Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen, so you don’t miss an episode as we take a closer look at what’s behind Chobani’s massive rise in the market and the idea of ethical and sustainable dairy this season.
To get us started, Anna Canning, Fair World Project’s campaigns manager is taking us to New York state to speak to someone who has changed that state’s dairy industry as much as Chobani.
Years of working in the food industry and then as a watchdog of ethical labeling claims have left me pretty skeptical of idyllic ads for packaged foods. Those ads that promise green fields and flowery worlds under every lid or in every package.
And Chobani’s yogurt branding certainly follows this format. Their website & ads for their new fair trade yogurt have a cutesy collage look, filled with a sort of tripped out bucolic scenery. There’s an abstract sun that looks a bit like the clumps of daisies that dot the improbably green field. Cutouts of black & white cows graze on the field. A red barn peeks out from behind the yogurt tub. Sunflowers in the background complete the scene.
These ads are tailor-made to hit like a wave of nostalgia for everyone who grew up with the psychedelic stylings all over the 1980s kids TV, or to hit home for all of us who cut up magazines to collage mix tape cases for our crushes.
And it also has that Instagram-ready look to it. This is the story that goes with selling dairy: sunny days, red barns, green pastures, and pristine black & white cows. And that story? It bears almost no resemblance to what really happens on dairy farms.
One of the weirdest things to me about Chobani’s ad for their “fair trade dairy” is that there are no people in sight. This idea of pitching “fair trade dairy”(and I’m making air quotes here) without a single human being around seems out of place. Fair trade is, after all, all about prioritizing people in business and trade dealings. And one of the first things to know about dairy is that it’s incredibly people-intensive. As one of our guests says, “the cows don’t just milk themselves.” It’s a round-the-clock, 14-hour shift kind of job.
In this season of the podcast, we’re finding the people who do the work. And we’re delving into the reality behind that pretty ad – the barns, the pasture, the cows – maybe even the daisies. We’ll be talking to people who milk the cows, who own the barns, and we’ll be looking into the other side of the dairy industry that also makes headlines: the shrinking number of farms, the low prices, and the root causes of some of the biggest issues in our food system.
But first, we’re going to start with one man’s story.
Before the branding, before that trippy country farm was ever made into an ad, there was a group of workers. And maybe their story got left out of the picture because it doesn’t quite fit the story that Chobani wants to tell. But it’s their hands that make milk possible. And their demands for rights and for justice that have brought the conversation to this point.
Thank you so much for the invitation to be here today with you. My name is Crispin and I have worked for the dairy industry in the past milking cows.
Crispin Hernandez now organizes dairy workers in Chobani’s New York supply chains with the Workers Center of Central New York. Together, they have made historic change for New York’s farmworkers. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
As we do in pandemic times, I talked to Crispin online through an interpreter – that’s the interpreter’s voice you’ll hear throughout our conversation.
Yeah. Well, so in the first place, when I first came to this country, and this was back in 2013, I wasn’t aware of the rights that we had. I wasn’t aware of the rights that we had as farm and agricultural workers.
At that time, the ranch that I was working at, there was a lot of injustice in the workplace. The managers would yell at us. They said words that in my opinion, were not okay for them to be saying to me. And there was just a lot of injustice. And so one of the things, as I mentioned, we were milking these cows. And we actually had to buy our own long gloves for ourselves. And that was to protect this from chemicals and from other sorts of things that you might come into contact with in that work environment.
Yeah. So let me explain a little bit also about the work itself, as I feel like it is important to let you know that when I first started working there, there was never any kind of efficient training for us, on the job training or anything like that.
And when I had first started working, there was actually a work accident and a cow stepped on my hand and I wasn’t taken to the hospital when that occurred. And I thought that was not okay.
Yeah. And so after that accident occurred, I continued to work, as I had said before, and I got better while I was working on the job and I kept milking. It was the case that I was working six days a week, 12 hour shifts at a time, and those shifts might be daytime shifts. They might also be nighttime shifts.
These experiences that Crispin is sharing are scary, and unfair. They’re also unfortunately common. Farm work is dangerous work, and dairy farms are some of the most dangerous. Cows are big animals – they weigh upwards of 1,500 pounds – and then there’s also the chemicals used to keep the place clean, to prevent all that milk and all those animals from brewing up some big bacterial mess.
Low milk prices, corporate consolidation, and a number of other factors push farmers to cut corners to save money where possible. And too often, the corners that get cut are essential worker protections: safety equipment, time to go to the hospital when injured on the job, a break to grab a meal..
Those 12 hour shifts that I was working, it wasn’t just 12 hours of working. It was 12 hours of running, running, and milking nonstop. And it felt as though I didn’t really have time to eat in a good way or any time whatsoever to kind of relax during the course of it. And it was so intense, it was intense, not just physically, but there also wasn’t any rest, there wasn’t any kind of pause and there was a lot of pressure. And so that work that I was doing with my colleagues, I came to realize it was just so important because as a result of our work, as a result of our labor, the milk that we were generating was enough to feed families, you know, that was milk that was feeding families throughout the world.
I’m guessing that most of you listening have drank milk before. Or maybe the cheese or yogurt that came from it. But just how did it get there? If you’re anything like me, before I talked to Crispin, I had a pretty vague understanding of it. Probably just a step up from that red barn & green daisy field marketing picture that we started with. He took the time to walk us through the milking process.
The first thing that would happen is the cows would come in and they would set themselves up in the milking parlor. They would get comfortable. Then we would come in and spray all of the udders. We would go around, we’d take iodine, myself, or one of my coworkers, and we go ahead and then we’d squeeze out some milk from the utters of these cows and make sure to check to see if they were good quality. If there wasn’t any illness present to make sure that they weren’t sick, then we would come back again and we would go ahead and we would clean off all of the utters, just making sure that there wasn’t any bacteria or any acid that might be present as well.
And then we would go ahead and connect them to the machines where they’d start to get milked. The milking would occur. And again, this was over a period of 12 hours. This was the routine, but after milking, we’d have to go back around and spray all of the utters once again.
And that work just keeps going – tend the cows, check for bacteria, keep them healthy, and keep the milk clean too.
…it wasn’t just the milk that we were involved with. We were protecting the cows. We were there day to day watching those cows with our own eyes. And we were there to protect them from sickness and from illness.
And we’re talking about 2,500 cows.
Seven hours to milk, wash the machines, then rinse and repeat – literally. A whole new round of milking. <
There were actually two separate milking parlors at the workplace that I was at. The first of those milking parlors had 40 cows side-by-side on each side. The other one had 20 on each side and I was actually working on the one that had 20 on each side. And so there were two of us, myself and a coworker.
And those two people were working hard.
And you had to be running while working, you had to be running from place to place because the manager wanted to make sure that they had their production. And so after seven hours of a session of milking, it was often the case that I would be feeling like I was just constantly falling behind. And it was a 12 hour a day where at the end of the day, my body was sore. My hands were sore. And after those 12 hours, my shoulders were sore because it required so much agility and movement.
Crispin might have been exhausted, but he was not alone.
When you’re talking about the agricultural industry or specifically the dairy industry, it’s important for the public to understand that this is collective labor. This is labor that happens as a part of a collective. And so there are workers that are working in the milking parlor, the way that I was describing it.
But there’s also at the same time, while those workers are in the milking parlors, milking the animals, there’s also other workers who were out there pushing the cows into the milking parlors or pushing the cows back out of the milking parlors. In addition to those workers, there’s also workers who were involved in cleaning, they’re going in, and they’re cleaning the areas where the cows are held. They’re making sure that their spaces are nice and clean.
They’re giving them food, they’re giving them water. And then with these workers, it’s also just super important that people understand that we’re caring for these cows. We’re caring for these cows from the moment that they’re born all the way up until they’re raised to the age where they start milk production.
There’s this point that Crispin keeps returning to in our conversation, and that’s the care that he and his coworkers give to the cows. There’s a tenderness there, and a consideration. And that consideration is in stark contrast to his own experience of running hard to keep up with production and keep the boss off his back.
Not only is it hard work, it’s also really skilled. Too often, people confuse low wage jobs with low skill. But Crispin sets the record straight.
You know, it is very skilled. It’s very skilled also just with your hands and it’s really important as well that people understand how tiring it is. And it’s also agriculture in general, it’s also very dangerous work. When working with cows, as I mentioned before, there’s a lot of chemicals, there’s a lot of dangers and that’s why it can be so dangerous. And that’s why one of the things that we’re really trying to make sure that is available to people is better training. So people are aware of what needs to occur in those circumstances.
Why am I mentioning this? Because, well, in my own case, as for my own person, I was hurt on the job.
Remember how Crispin talked about how, back when he first started, a cow had trampled on his hand, and he just had to keep working through it? That wasn’t the only injustice he experienced on that farm. Instead, day after day, it kept adding up.
It was the case that I had a manager who actually attacked one of my coworkers, yelled at him and then hit him, and physically abused them as well.
…Everyone around, no one did anything because they were all afraid. They were all afraid they might get fired.
News stories of the time give an account of what happened that night. A manager called one of Crispin’s coworkers to come in and work on his day off with next to no notice. The worker questioned the decision, likely unhappy with losing one of his few opportunities for rest, and then the manager physically assaulted him, as Crispin described.
And so that night I took action. And even though he didn’t want to be taken to the hospital because he was afraid of what might transpire, you know, we made sure that he did receive the medical attention that he needed.
And after that night, his organizing continued. Working with the Workers Center of Central New York, he and his coworkers started to look beyond just medical treatment for their injuries. Together, they raised their voices and brought their stories to the public. And on May Day of 2015, they gathered in protest outside the gates of the farm – workers and their allies from across New York state standing together. Their signs read, “Milk cows, not workers,” “No Blood in Milk,” and “Say No to Workplace Violence.”
And it was historic. It was about 50 people, if I’m not mistaken. And we were organizing against that sort of injustice that we were seeing take place.
It was historic for me. It was also historic for all of the workers that worked at that ranch alongside me.
Instead of putting their heads down, Crispin and his co-workers went big. They brought their unjust working conditions to the public. It wasn’t just the one incident where the worker was beat up for being reluctant to come in on his day off. It wasn’t just Crispin’s injury either. There was a history of injuries on Marks’ Farm, where they worked, and enough complaints that OSHA had been involved a few years before, issuing a fine over inadequate training to handle chemicals. Workers often didn’t get paid in full for the hours they worked. Things had been building for a while. And now, together, the workers were speaking up.
While that May Day event felt historic, it was really just the beginning.
After the protest, Crispin kept going to work. Kept showing up for his 12-hour shifts. But things had changed.
The managers started to intimidate me after that occurred. They changed my job.
They changed the role that I had on the ranch. And they weren’t looking at me favorably anymore. And what they really wanted more than anything else was for me to just lose hope and to leave the ranch. But no, no, I resisted and I continued to continue to work and do the things that I did at the ranch.
And it got to the point where I just felt like the moment arrived. I couldn’t continue to live under that sort of intimidation. And so I went ahead and once again, I started to organize with my coworkers and we decided that we wanted to create a committee of workers at the workplace to kind of change some of the injustices that we were seeing present.
They reached out again to the Workers’ Center of Central New York, who had supported their organizing before. And one of the Workers’ Center organizers, Rebecca Fuentes, came out to meet with them in some of their limited hours off work.
There in a small trailer where one of Crispin’s co-workers lived.
So we had this meeting and we were having a conversation about the different sorts of injustices that we were seeing. And we were talking about the changes that we would like to see, for example, if it would be possible for the workplace to be able to provide us for free with those long gloves that were required to protect ourselves. We were also talking about how great it would be if we could have English classes available to us as well on the ranch. And I believe some of the managers became aware of the fact that we were meeting at this time and they came and they tried to intimidate us. They became aware of the fact that Rebecca Fuentes was there as well. And so they knocked on the door while we were having the meeting. And basically they said that they were going to go ahead and without reason behind them they called the cops on us. They called the cops to intimidate us. And they called the police both from the state level. And then also from the County level in order to intimidate us at that moment in time.
That’s right. The bosses called the cops because they wanted to stop Crispin and his coworkers discussing safety precautions like gloves to protect against the chemicals they spent their 12-hour shifts handling, and English classes in their free time.
Yeah. And so the police did try to arrive and they tried to intimidate us.
They interrogated Rebecca and they asked her why she was there and she was able to respond and the police ended up leaving and we were able to continue to have that meeting in the trailer that one of my coworkers lived in.
After that day, things continued to get worse. The managers knew that Crispin and some of his coworkers were talking about improving workplace conditions. And they continued to make their lives harder, trying to intimidate them at every turn. But they didn’t back down. Instead, they kept organizing.
We went around and we went to all of the different trailers where all of my coworkers at that ranch were working and we started to talk with them about workers’ rights. And we started to explain to them what had occurred with us one week prior with the police intimidation. And it was the case that as we were crossing the street, doing this outreach, one of the managers’ sons saw us doing this and knew that we were doing outreach and we were telling them about the police. And so when we went back to work, the next day, the working hours were different and only myself and one other of the meeting participants ended up showing up to work because the other three just couldn’t continue to handle the level of intimidation that they were suffering at the hands of the managers.
Try as they might to intimidate him, the bosses just couldn’t get Crispin to quit. So finally, they fired him.
We were fired for demanding our rights and for standing up for our rights and to me that was an injustice.
They tried to pass it off as the milk production levels were lower than they needed to be, but we never saw anything like that. That was never the case. Everything was marching along just fine. And it was really just a cover for them to be able to go ahead and fire us because of the fact that we were trying to exercise our rights as workers.
This is a big moment in Crispin’s story – and in the rest of this series too.
Sitting down to talk with your coworkers about the conditions at work, wages, safety, all that – is a widely protected right. It’s written into International Labor Organization conventions, which are the guidelines that outline fair and decent working conditions on a global level. It’s also written into U.S. labor law. BUT there’s a massive gaping loophole in that U.S. law, and that’s what Crispin and his coworkers fell into.
Many of the laws that shape workplace protections here in the U.S. date back to New Deal era legislation.
Archival footage – Franklin Roosevelt speaking:
“The proposition is simply this: if all employers will act together to shorten hours and raise wages, we can put people back to work.”
There, at perhaps the height of the Great Depression, with working people across the country struggling to make ends meet, and labor unrest spreading, Congress wrote the laws that have come to define many of our current workplace protections. Central among those rules was what’s called the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The Act outlines a number of key protections for working people – including organizing and discussing wages and working conditions.
But back when this New Deal legislation was created, a massive compromise was written into the fundamental protections. Farmworkers and domestic workers were specifically exempted. A number of things like minimum wage, overtime pay, and protections against retaliation for organizing that most working people take for granted just didn’t apply to people in those jobs.
And here’s why.
At that time, the majority of farmworkers were Black. And, rather than grant those workers equal protections under the law, lawmakers wrote legislation ensuring that farmworkers were essentially a permanent underclass. That racist compromise served to continue the legacy of enslavement and plantation agriculture that still shapes our food system today. And if we’re talking about that legacy of slavery, I should also mention that even slavery isn’t really over. Even today, there is an allowance for “slavery or involuntary servitude” for people who are incarcerated. Old Jim Crow era laws that enforced racial segregation are considered a shameful, racist part of history. But the impacts live on.
Those labor laws were crafted to maintain an exploitable workforce, one where poverty wages persist up to the present day. Today, the demographics of farmworkers have changed, even though their legal position remains about the same. Today, Crispin represents the average farmworker pretty well. The majority speak Spanish (and/or other Indigenous languages of the Americas), and many are also undocumented, adding another layer to their vulnerability to exploitation.
This racist legacy in federal law has been repeated throughout many state labor laws as well. And that’s how Crispin and his co-workers found themselves jobless for standing up for themselves and meeting to discuss better conditions, decent safety equipment, and English language classes.
But once again, they didn’t back down. Instead, with the support of the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Workers’ Justice Center of New York, they sued, turning that unjust termination on its head and taking on the whole unjust system.
I felt like I had a responsibility to be a part of that legal case and to be able to share the importance of the experiences that I had at that point in time in that branch, and also the experiences that agricultural workers continue to experience throughout the entire area.
I was visiting not just the ranch that I worked on, but I was also visiting other ranches. I was trying to organize workers all throughout those ranches. And I saw those same injustices. I saw intimidation occurring. I saw, even though it’s hard to believe continuing to this very day, the case that there was a lot of robbing of salaries occurring from the managers towards the workers, and it continues to happen. There were also incidents and there were accidents that were due to just improper, completely lacking on-the-job training. And I’ve also seen a lot of people who have lost their lives working in the dairy industry. And so as a result of my experience, of all the things that I’ve seen, and all the things that I continue to see in the state of New York, I decided that it was important that I continue to be a part of that legal case. And that’s why in 2016, I was.
Crispin and his coworkers won that case. The New York Supreme Court ruled that leaving farmworkers out of key labor laws was a violation of the right to organize, as well as violating their constitutional rights of due process and equal protection under the law.
Finally, there was official recognition that those New Deal era laws were racist and unfair.
This victory was huge and historic. And it gave Crispin and farmworker advocates the momentum to keep pushing.
And thanks to that also there was legislation that was able to occur because it had been backed up in the state Senate for 20 years and had never passed.
I’m very grateful for the organizations that supported us during that legal battle. I’m also grateful to all of my colleagues and coworkers who are workers in agriculture and also in the dairy industry, because this really is collective work that we’re able to accomplish. And I’m really happy that we won at the Supreme Court and I’ve always said, it’s a result of the gratitude and the things that I experienced when I see the day-to-day realities of what’s now a law and is a law that will span to people living in New York.
I’m going to leave Crispin and his story here for the moment.
Although really the story is just getting started. It wasn’t just Crispin who won in the lawsuit. His work, in collaboration with other workers and allies, got new laws pushed through the state legislature. Together, they won better wages and protections for the thousands of people working on farms, milking cows, picking vegetables, and tending apple trees across New York State. And with those organizing protections, they’re poised to be able to build still more power to negotiate for things like better pay, or maybe a day off from those 12-hour shifts, or the long gloves they need to protect their skin while doing their jobs.
This episode, we focused our conversation on what was happening on one specific farm. But that farm was part of a much bigger pipeline of farms in Upstate New York milking cows and selling their milk to Chobani. Next episode, we’ll hear what happens when Crispin and his coworkers bring their struggle to Chobani’s door – and what followed this big win.
Thanks for joining us on For a Better World podcast. Stay tuned for our next episode where Anna will pick up the conversation with Crispin – and connect the dots back to that Chobani yogurt tub where we started. Until then, be sure to follow us on Apple podcasts, or wherever you’re listening – your 5-star reviews help get more people listening.
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For a Better World is made possible by our small but mighty team. Our show is edited by Stefanie de Leon Tzic, Katie Gardner is our producer, Anna Canning is our script writer, our storytellers are Ryan Zinn and Anna Canning, our music was composed by Mark Robertson, and I’m your host and executive director of Fair World Project Dana Geffner. Thank you for listening!