October 19, 2021
Crispin Hernandez and the Workers Center of Central New York won historic legal protections for farmworkers in Episode 1. Now they take their demands to Chobani’s doorstep, backed by a detailed report.
But instead of negotiating with workers, Chobani chose a different path. They partnered with Fair Trade USA to develop a new “Fair Trade Dairy” standard, and rolled out a “Milk Matters” platform. But they aren’t engaging with workers.
Topics covered include:
- The massive growth of the industrial dairy industry at the expense of farm workers’ health and wellbeing.
- Workers’ Center of Central New York’s research into conditions on dairy farms in New York State, including those selling to Chobani.
- Crispin and organizers deliver their demands straight to Chobani’s doorstep, calling for recognition of their rights and negotiations.
- Farm workers’ demand for an alternative to Chobai and Fair Trade USA’s “Fair Trade Dairy” label that requires Chobani to work with dairy farms that respect workers’ rights
- How Fair Trade USA’s “Fair Trade Dairy” label was developed without farmworkers, a clear contrast from the farmworkers’ demands of Chobani
- What has (and hasn’t) changed since Workers Center of Central New York brough their demands to Chobani’s door.
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/
Read the Milked report, detailing conditions on New York dairy farms written by Workers Center of Central New York and allies and presented to Chobani: https://milkedny.wordpress.com/
See the open letter to Chobani from New York worker groups detailing their demands and opposition to “Fair Trade Dairy”: https://www.workerscny.org/en/chobani-respect-workers-organizing-rights/
Find out where farm workers are organizing around the country and learn more about the work of Food Chain Workers’ Alliance: https://foodchainworkers.org/
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El episodio en español está debajo
Season 2, Episode Two:
Last episode, we left off with Crispin Hernandez when he and his fellow dairy farmworkers had just won a historic victory.
Now, like most other workers, it would be illegal to fire them for coming together to discuss their wages and working conditions. Together, through their organizing, they won better protections. That victory in the courts was followed by a legislative win, enshrining those rights into law.
They’ve made strides from where we were last episode, when the farm manager called the police on Crispin and his coworkers. Their offense: meeting up in their free time to talk about getting long gloves to keep them safe when handling dangerous chemicals. Now they had the backing of the law: those conversations are “protected activity,” as written in the law.
And while it sounds basic, the right to come together and talk is one of those fundamental building blocks of people power. It started with talking about gloves, and led to overturning a long-standing, racist exemption in the law.
But Crispin and his fellow farmworkers were just getting started.
In this episode, Fair World Project’s campaign manager Anna Canning continues her conversation with Crispin and gets into what they did next with those new protections. And while their fight began in one workers’ home on one farm, that one farm was part of something much bigger.
I worked with farms that principally were working with Chobani.
What happened next
Those farms where Crispin had been working and organizing for better conditions were not really outliers. Instead, they were pretty representative of conditions in the dairy industry.
Remember that pretty Chobani ad from the last episode? The red barn, black-and-white cows, and the daisies? Well, hidden behind the planks of those barn walls is a world far from the pretty picture painted by Chobani’s ads.
And while Crispin and his coworkers had been coming together to improve conditions in their workplaces, the Workers’ Center of Central New York had also been developing a larger project. Instead of letting the company’s marketing tell the whole story, they developed a report based on interviews of farmworkers across the state of New York. The report is titled Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State. Their findings showed: “[the] spectacular growth of the dairy industry has been achieved at the cost of basic labor rights for the immigrant farmworkers who keep modern milking parlors running.”
The photos in the report are a stark contrast to Chobani’s ads. Instead of sunny skies, there are close-packed, dark barns. And lots of workers, mostly men. They wear work clothes, blue gloves on their hands, some stained with the iodine they use to wash the cows down for milking. They wear tall rubber boots as they stand in wet milking parlors, or among piles of chopped cow feed. They show their injuries to the camera: Missing fingers. An injured eye. A photo of a dead comrade – the human cost of a dangerous workplace.
There’s cows too, like in the Chobani ad. They are black and white, but that’s where the resemblance ends. These cows aren’t in daisy-peppered pastures. No – They’re standing in metal racks hooked up to milking machines and black snake-like metal hoses. Or they’re standing in other racks eating or being moved from wet station to wet station. The men look tiny among these 1500 pound animals. And that’s born out by the statistics from those surveyed in the Milked report. 71% of people working in these dairies agreed that the most dangerous part of the job was the cows.
They’re huge animals, and can be unpredictable. But cows aren’t the only danger on a dairy farm. There’s the heavy machinery, toxic chemicals, manure pits, and 12-14 hour shifts of constant rushing with little training, as Crispin talked about in the last episode.
The report was published in 2017. And once it was published, Crispin and allies with the Workers’ Center of Central New York brought that report right to Chobani’s doorstep.
0:02 – 0:14:
¡Chobani, escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha! ¡Chobani, escucha! ¡Estamos en la lucha!
We actually ended up having a press conference in New York City itself. I believe one of the things that ended up happening was at Chobani’s cafe. We actually took a letter to a representative of Chobani, and we wanted them to be able to recognize workers and the importance and the intense conditions under which people work. And so this all kind of came together as a direct action.
Crispin and allies and organizers with the Workers’ Center of Central New York marched into Chobani’s cafe. There’s a livestream of the event that shows them as they march up, chanting. They gather outside holding large printouts of the report, announcing that workers are getting “Milked.” They march into the cafe, past mirrored walls, and past the pastry case right up to the person working at the counter.
Crispin addresses him directly, as he holds a copy of the report in his hands. One of his colleagues translates as he speaks.
Livestream video of report delivery action:
There are so many injustices in the dairy industry & there are health and safety violations and even fatalities. We all deserve human rights. We are all human.
The clatter of the cafe is all around, but Crispin continues and presents their report.
Livestream video of report delivery action:
We believe that the CEO of Chobani is a leader and one who can change the injustices of the dairy industry in New York
And I remember all of the other workers talking about the importance of this moment, of this direct action that we were able to take and specifically let Chobani know the role that they have to play in terms of partners in the chain, the supply chain.
Yeah. And it was thanks to that collective work that we were able to actually attract a couple of representatives from Chobani to Syracuse and we were able to have a meeting with Chobani. And that was thanks to the work, the tireless work of many volunteers who were emailing Chobani and asking them to recognize and listen to workers. And back in 2017, it culminated in a meeting that we had over at the Worker Center of Central New York, where several colleagues, several other dairy workers were also there. And I was there as well. And we were able to speak directly with representatives from Chobani.
At that meeting, we were able to express the concerns that we had as workers, and to be able to give them firsthand the report that we had finished.
The report ends with several policy recommendations, and just one critical demand for dairy processing companies and consumers: “[The] creation of a worker-driven and independently monitored social responsibility program for New York dairy farms.” The report goes on to explain that purchasers like Chobani should assure workers’ human rights “by making legally binding commitments to source dairy products only from farms that participate in rigorous labor rights monitoring conducted independent of the dairy purchaser or supplier.”
Requiring big corporations like Chobani to work with farms that respect worker’s rights and don’t call the police on their workers sounds reasonable, right?
It ended up being one of several meetings that we were able to have in person before the new law was passed in 2019, where we were able to demand that they recognize the worker’s rights and also the need and the requirement for us to be able to unionize as a group as well.
And I feel like it’s just important for them to be able to recognize that it’s due to the hard work that we perform in their production line.
You know, we really wanted to make sure that they were able to hear those voices, demanding that they recognize that not just workers’ voices, but their voice and their vote in what we are living through and the conditions that we’re experiencing. And we want them to do the right thing. And up until this point, they haven’t. They haven’t been doing the right thing.
So, since you had that big meeting, has Chobani continued to negotiate with workers?
Yeah, ya know, that’s a great question. Thank you for asking that. And, you know, we haven’t met again since then.
Crispin and the workers he organizes with haven’t had another sit down meeting with Chobani since they won their historic legislation protecting their right to organize.
But they remain steadfast in their demands.
Yeah. So we to just continue to have them recognize workers.
You know we just want to see a place where they have better workplace conditions and protections, and they’re able to hear from us and just bring an end finally, to these intimidations that are such a common practice.
It seems like the workers’ demands were pretty clear. They outlined them in a meeting. They wrote them in a report. They delivered them to a representative. They were brought to the streets of New York, where workers’ calls to action reverberated through Chobani’s stylish café.
So did Chobani ever respond? Not directly. Instead,
They recently came up with this program, Chobani did, called “Milk Matters,” but they went ahead and they did this without consulting with the workers themselves. And I feel like that’s wrong, you know.
Chobani outlines 6 pillars for their “Milk Matters” program focusing on social, environmental, and animal care issues in milk production. The pillar that Crispin and I focus on during our conversation is the one titled “Worker Wellbeing.” And for that “Worker Wellbeing,” Chobani worked with Fair Trade USA to adapt their fair trade label for the dairy industry.
Remember that one demand for the dairy industry that Workers’ Center of Central New York wrote into their Milked report? It was for “the creation of a worker-driven and independently monitored social responsibility program for New York dairy farms.”
That’s not what they got.
Instead, I asked Crispin what the workers he spoke with on the participating farms said about the new fair trade dairy label.
I have spoken with them and you know what? They don’t even know what fair trade actually is. Those workers who were working on a lot of those farms that are going to be part of that certification program. And I remember one ranch, I went and I spoke with them and they have no idea. And so that’s really wrong on the part of Chobani, not including workers’ voices is wrong.
That’s right. The workers on the farms that are part of the program don’t even know about this fair trade certification that is supposed to be protecting their rights. That’s a far cry from the “worker-driven” change they’d called for.
The organized workers in Chobani’s supply chain have been clear over the years.
And for us, the workers, as I mentioned before, we had in-person meetings back in 2017, where we were demanding that they recognize workers.
We demanded that they recognize workers’ voices and vote in their workplaces and the conditions that we’re experiencing. And so that program, if it’s not recognizing workers and their voices, it’s not okay.
In 2019, leading labor organizations in New York state penned an open letter to Chobani. The title of the letter was clear and to-the-point: “Chobani: There is No Farmworker Wellbeing Without Union Rights.”
The letter calls on Chobani to make good on their reputation as a high-bar company, and calls out the history of Fair Trade USA, their newly announced certification partner, for their track record of ignoring union organizing rights.
In their own words,
“There is no fair trade without workers’ rights. And respect for worker wellbeing has to include respect for workers’ right to freely associate.
You say that you want to empower dairy farmworkers. Well, our power comes from having a collective voice to stand up for our rights.
Workers who must fight alone to address issues in their workplace, without the strength of a collective voice, are not empowered.”
That letter was published in November of 2019. And now, nearly two years later, Crispin and his fellow workers are still firm on their position against the so-called fair trade certification.
Yeah. Let me explain why it is the case that we don’t want this thing called fair trade, right? Why is that the case? In general it’s because workers aren’t being included in that certification program. And so in New York, there is this other law, right? This is right that we have to be able to organize and we can organize, but you know, what we want is voice and vote in the workplace.
Crispin cuts straight to the point. While their workplace may be a farm – big or small – they’re going directly to Chobani with these demands because they recognize the power that Chobani has in their supply chain. They’re the ones that are buying from the farms, and they have the power to set the conditions.
And, while Chobani has the power of being a big company with plenty of money, Crispin also points out that his fellow workers have power too:
And so, you know, it’s us, the agricultural workers and the dairy farm workers who’re feeding the world, and not just in New York but throughout the world. So, what we ask of Chobani is to look back over their shoulder and to listen, listen to us.
Look back, listen to the workers. You know, we’re out there, see the workers’ hands that are involved in the process of getting those products out there. We’re there every day, 365 days a year, we’re asking that you will recognize us as workers.
And when they talk about things like fair trade or Milk Matters, this other campaign that Chobani has tried to create, they never consulted with us. They never asked us to be a part of it, they never knew. They never asked. They never wanted to see if we had better conditions. And with the workers, it was never explained to us. They never explained what fair trade means and how it impacts us as workers.
Well, as I said before, every day, we’re out there, whether it’s cold, whether it’s hot, we’ve got shifts that are over 10 hours a day and not just daytime either, night as well. And the dairy industry is important. So for me, it is something that is important and intense, and it’s important that they recognize that as well.
We want them to listen to us, the agriculture workers. We want them to do the right thing and to recognize that we, who are part of their supply chain, have the ability to unionize.
Crispin and his fellow workers are clear about what they’re asking of Chobani. And Chobani has refused to listen to them. And that’s why it really rubs the wrong way to hear Fair Trade USA promote their new fair trade dairy label. Shortly after the launch, their Milk Program manager said on the Dairy Dialog podcast that they existed to “really just give a voice to people who are typically the voiceless.”
Crispin and the dairy workers milking cows in Chobani’s supply chain are hardly voiceless. They’ve shared their perspective and calls for action in written statements, in days of action on farms and in the city. They’ve gathered the testimony of nearly 100 workers into a report. These workers and their collective action have overturned old unfair laws and organized to bring legislation to protect their rights.
Their voices are strong. It’s just that Chobani has chosen not to listen.
And instead, they’ve brought in a label to declare that everything’s “fair”. But that’s not what the workers have been calling for.
So what do we want from them? What do we want Chobani to do?
Well, we want them to recognize us. We want them to listen to us and we want them to be accountable.
We want them to be grateful to us for the part that we play in their production. And, you know, it’s because of us that they’re able to sell their products and that they’re growing their business from day to day.
An aside: That growth that Crispin mentions is huge. Chobani has done extremely well with the Greek yogurt craze. And just this summer, they declared their intentions to go public. The initial valuation of their company? $10 BILLION dollars. That’s a whole lot of money.
That wealth? It’s built from the labor of so many people like Crispin tending cows.
In exchange for that…
You know, we want to make sure that as agricultural workers we’re also in a place where we’re able to express our voice as well. So we want them to do the right thing and we want to be able to keep talking with them.
And we’re not just talking to Chobani, but we also want to talk to all of the public consumers of Chobani. And here’s the clearest message that I feel like we can offer for you: recognize union workers. You know, when it comes to consumers, whether you’re going to drink milk or have yourself a snack of yogurt, or cheese or butter or any of the other products that can come up as a result of the work that we do on these ranches. Well, where does it come from? It comes from the important work of all of the agricultural workers and the dairy industry. And even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic, that hasn’t stopped the supply chain and you know, those of us who are here and working, we continue to work, we continue to work day. We continue to work night, to make sure that it continues to happen. And as a result, we’re a major part of the economic successes that have happened in the state of New York.
So what would it look like for you to have a truly fair dairy industry?
I would say that the best way we can see a just dairy industry would be for all companies, whether they be in the U.S. or otherwise, to recognize the workers that are such an important part of their supply chain. To be able to give thanks that they are there to provide part of that production. So for Chobani and the other companies like them, we want them to see the worker’s hand involved in the production that they’re creating. That the reason that they’re able to provide those foods is in part thanks to the workers who take such a large part in doing so. And to treat us with the justice that we require and make sure that our workplace conditions and the things that we’re living under, not just in the workplace, are of a certain level. And so that there are, we are able to avoid accidents and the many deaths that have occurred because the dairy industry can be dangerous. It is the result that we need to protect all of these agricultural workers, both in the state of New York and throughout the United States in order to create a more just dairy industry.
Crispin and the other workers’ call for Chobani to listen to them and to respect basic workplace demands – and that’s backed by research.
Put in simple terms, organized workers are the best defenders of their own rights.
After two plus decades, there’s a body of research looking at what sort of programs best protect workers’ rights. And one thing is clear, top-down, corporate-dominated programs like the “fair trade dairy” label that Chobani and Fair Trade USA are rolling out don’t protect workers. We’ll get more into the details of that in a later episode.
But, even as we wrap up this episode, I’m still stuck on the deceptive language of being “a voice for the voiceless” that Fair Trade USA used to promote their label. It feels condescending. And it’s untrue. Because Crispin is not voiceless..he’s quite vocal actually, and the other workers aren’t voiceless either. As the writer Arundhati Roy wrote, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
It certainly seems like it’s easier for Chobani and Fair Trade USA to choose to ignore these farmworkers’ voices, rather than negotiate with their demands.
And their decision to leave workers’ voices unheard has a long history.
For too long, U.S. labor law has made it harder for farmworkers to raise their voices for better working conditions. A lack of organizing protections has helped keep wages low and workplace protections inadequate. Since the founding of this country, in one way or another, powerful farmers, legislators, and companies have worked to keep farmworkers an exploited and exploitable class. The rules of the old plantations got rewritten and adopted into laws. But the outlines of the situation remained with first mostly Black and now mostly immigrant workers providing their labor, skill, and knowledge to build wealth for those at the other end of the supply chain.
Through their collective action, Crispin and others were able to overturn some of the old, inherently racist exemptions to labor law that had made it harder for them to organize and build power, as we talked about in the first episode.
The truth of the dairy industry is a far cry from Chobani’s idyllic ads. Instead of cows grazing on daisy-filled pastures, they are shoved into tight pens. And instead of picturesque red barns, there are vast metal buildings where people like Crispin tend to hundreds of cows. Their working conditions are terrible, as Crispin describes and the Milked report documents.
To stay invested in the unreal, hyper-nostalgic collage of the place that the milk comes from is to stay invested in a world where the workers are invisible.
This was brought up again when I listened to food system leader Qiana Mickie speak a few months ago. She said “We need to divest from the pastoral narrative around farming. It undermines our solidarity.” And it’s true. As long as we stay invested in the pastoral image of farming, it’s hard to address the real conditions at these dairy farms.
When we see beyond the fantasy, there’s possibility. Real possibility for transformative change. Let’s support that – not some feel-good label that papers over workers’ demands.
Fair trade wasn’t initially developed as a feel-good label. Instead, as we discussed in depth in Season 1, it grew out of a movement led by small-scale farmers mostly in Latin America to carve out an alternative to exploitative models of trade. Those small-scale farmers recognized that they couldn’t compete against the big plantations built up through colonial powers. Big plantations with all the advantages of scale. And so, that’s how fair trade began, building a market for these small-scale farmers who were growing coffee and cocoa.
That’s the movement I joined once upon a time – a vision to transform trade. And at Fair World Project, we’ve pushed back hard against efforts over the years to bring plantation agriculture in under the fair trade umbrella.
Small-scale farmers and farmworkers are both exploited in our food and farming systems, but the solutions to those issues are not the same. Over the last two episodes, we’ve heard how laws in the U.S. that govern farmwork are shaped by plantation agriculture, by the ongoing living legacy of enslavement and exploitation. There’s no rebranding that legacy as fair.
Instead, addressing exploitation is going to take getting down to the root causes.
And it is possible. We saw how Crispin and his fellow workers organized to change the laws that have for too long been an obstacle to making change. And that’s the kind of transformative solutions we can support.
Farmworkers are organizing every day across the country. They’re building transformative solutions we can all support. We’ll include a link in the show notes to Crispin’s organization, Workers Center of Central New York, where you can keep up on what they’re doing. And we’ll also link to the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance, the national alliance of food and farmworkers groups – they supported the dairy farm workers as they brought their demands to Chobani in New York. And they are supporting more organizing locally across the country – maybe near to you. There’s lots of ways to plug in and support.
That’s it for today. Thanks for joining us on For a Better World podcast.
Stay tuned for our next episode where Anna talks to an organizer who’s working on some of those transformative solutions that go beyond a feel-good label to put workers’ human rights first. Until then, be sure to follow us on Apple podcasts, or wherever you’re listening – your 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!