Aired On:
November 2, 2021

The products you see at the grocery store with labels that promise to protect people and the planet don’t tell the full story. And oftentimes those labels are full of empty promises. But what if there was another way to ensure products are sourced from farms that put workers’ rights ahead of marketing?

The Vermont-based and worker-led organization Migrant Justice is doing just that. They call their Milk with Dignity program a “new day for human rights in dairy,” and in this episode we talk with organizer Marita Canedo.

Topics covered include:

  • How the struggle for human rights and against corporate exploitation spans the globe.
  • How Migrant Justice was formed and grew to focus on fundamental rights and protections, including freedom of movement, dignified work and safe housing, and freedom from discrimination.
  • Migrant Justice’s successful campaign for driver’s licenses for all people in Vermont, regardless of their immigration status.
  • What Worker-driven Social Responsibility means and what it looks like for workers to lead in developing standards for enforceable human rights protections on dairy farms.
  • How programs like Milk with Dignity tackle the root causes of exploitation in the food system by addressing the power dynamics.
  • How the Milk with Dignity program protected essential workers throughout the pandemic.
  • How Milk with Dignity compares to the “Fair Trade Dairy” discussed in Episode 2.
  • Migrant Justice’s current campaign calling on Hannafords to join the Milk with Dignity program.

Resources

Learn more about Migrant Justice: https://migrantjustice.net/ and see their impact reporting here.

On November 8th after a 3 week “Dignity Tour” around Northeast states, Migrant Justice is hosting a big action at Hannaford headquarters to call on them to join the Milk with Dignity program. Join them to show them that farmworkers are not alone, and that there is a national movement for dignity and economic justice in the dairy supply chains. For more information, go to their website, or https://www.facebook.com/events/441419114257654.

Outside the Northeastern U.S., you can still take action: Call on Hannafords to join Milk with Dignity online: https://migrantjustice.net/Hannaford-action-toolkit.

Fair World Project’s report, Label Before Labor compares Milk with Dignity to Fair Trade USA’s “Fair Trade Dairy” label: fairworld.info/labelbeforelabor.

Dana Geffner:
Stand in the grocery store and look at the shelves around you. On just about every package, there’s some kind of a claim, often supported by some sort of official-looking seal. It’s good for you, or you’ll feel good, or maybe both. It protects people, or protects the planet. Maybe all of the above. But those labels don’t tell the full story.

I’m your host, Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project. And while all those labels exist on the shelf, deciphering what’s actually ethical, versus what’s just some more good marketing is getting harder and harder. That “fair trade dairy” label that we talked about in the last two episodes? Well, Chobani yogurt with that fair trade seal was on grocery stores shelves for approximately two months before there were any final standards released by Fair Trade USA. If you’d wanted to know the details of what that label meant, good luck finding it.

In this episode, Fair World Project’s campaign manager Anna Canning talks to Marita Canedo, an organizer with Migrant Justice. They call their Milk with Dignity program a “new day for human rights in dairy.”

And they take a totally different approach to the whole question of what’s on a label. In fact, look around the grocery store and you won’t find a seal with their name on it. But they are building a real movement for change that puts building people power and protecting human rights before shiny marketing. And it’s making positive change for farmworkers in the dairy industry.

Anna Canning:
Hi, it’s Anna again. I first met Migrant Justice back in 2017. I was new to Fair World Project and new to this work – but right away I was struck by the energy of their organizing. I was part of a big gathering that had come to their home state of Vermont for two reasons.

We were all there together because Migrant Justice was in the middle of a campaign calling on Ben and Jerry’s – yes, that famous, Vermont-based ice cream maker – to adopt their plan to address the conditions that workers face every day as they milked cows in Ben & Jerry’s supply chain.

And we were there for the Food Chain Workers Alliance annual meeting. They’re a national organization whose membership, as the name implies, works all along the food chain – from farms and fields to processing factories and warehouses to restaurants. And that gathering of people is a big part of what they do – bringing people together to support each other’s organizing for justice throughout the food system. Food Chain Workers Alliance members also marched alongside Crispin and the Workers Center of Central New York to deliver their report and demands for negotiations to Chobani at their café– as we talked about last episode…

Like Crispin and the workers in Chobani’s supply chain, Migrant Justice had been marching and calling on Ben & Jerry’s for a while. But the difference was that instead of ignoring workers demands, or bringing in an outside corporate solution, Ben & Jerry’s finally signed on to the demands of dairy workers for Milk with Dignity.

But that’s getting ahead of the story…

Marita Canedo:
My name is Marita Canedo. I’m originally from Bolivia and I’m part of Migrant Justice in Vermont.

Anna Canning:
Excellent. And how did you personally get started working on human rights and worker rights issues?

Marita Canedo:
Yeah, well I was born when Bolivia was in the middle of a dictatorship, so my parents had to go through those hard times.

There was no food, no water, long lines to get some services and some things. And then times improved. But then neoliberalism started and free commerce and we had problems.

Anna Canning:
Neoliberalism is a term that gets used a lot, but maybe the quickest definition is that it’s the idea that market forces are the solution to all our interactions. Less government regulation, more private solutions. The government that rules the best rules the least. That’s neoliberalism in a nutshell.

Marita Canedo:
I was there when the water war started and a lot of people were killed, just fighting for natural resources.

<Democracy Now News clip>
The political situation in Latin America’s poorest country continues to heat up and it’s being fueled by a battle over who will have control of the country’s substantial natural gas reserves. For years, Bolivia has seen a war between pro-US and pro-corporate regimes and an opposition composed largely of indigenous communities, labor unions and dissident political movements.

At the center of these battles has been the debate over control of Bolivia’s water, oil and now natural gas. This week, massive contingents of indigenous communities have escalated their campaign to call for the nationalization of the country’s natural gas industry.
Yesterday, tens of thousands of people blockaded roads in and out of the capital La Paz…

Anna Canning:
Who will benefit from a country’s land, the water, and the air? Will it be the people, or corporations?

Marita Canedo:
The president at the time flew away, escaping, because the people just rose up and were asking him to stop selling our country and privatizing all the companies.

Anna Canning:
Marita began her struggle for justice in Bolivia. But when she and her family came to Vermont, she stayed in the fight.

Marita Canedo:
So I grew up in the movement and fighting for human rights.

I think the parallel is that there are still people that are invisible that need to fight for their human rights. You know, we live in this capitalist world that is dominating. It has created a system that oppresses and leaves out the work of people, exploiting them, just taking people as a labor force and not humans. So I think the struggle to be recognized as humans and with rights is really important. That’s why we fight.

Anna Canning:
Marita continues that fight for human rights with Migrant Justice.

Marita Canedo:
We are a grassroots organization of dairy farmworkers and we fight to empower and create a voice of the community.

Marita Canedo:
When we started it was unfortunately after a preventable death of a dairy farm worker because he got strangled to death while working, and that was the spark that brought up that people are sustaining the dairy industry and not invisible and they need to organize. Instead of doing things for them is giving them the space and tools to bring up solutions collectively.

Being a grassroots organization means that we have a lot of conversations with our leaders. Our structure is completely different than other organizations, we are a horizontal organization. So there is no Executive Director and the staff responds to a coordination committee, which are all farmworkers, leaders that define where the organization has to go.

I work closely with the Milk with Dignity Standards Council with farmers under the program, and also farmworkers under the program, checking that there is compliance and support in the Milk with Dignity Standards Council.

And also I coordinate the help line, which is called Tele Ayuda, where we can receive phone calls from people that start with, “I need a driver’s license” to “I’m in danger, I need somebody to pick me up,” or somebody has been detained by immigration.

At the same time, if there are needs for referrals for the community to services or other providers such as support with domestic violence, sexual violence, access to food, access to healthcare. I make the connections, I am part of the people in the office that try to make it possible that the service providers are accessible to our community as well.

Anna Canning:
Last episode, Crispin talked about Fair Trade USA’s “fair trade dairy” program and how it was rolled out over the objections of worker organizers. And the farmworkers the program claims to benefit – they didn’t even know what was going on!

What Marita is describing is the complete opposite of that. She coordinates with workers who are milking cows every day, workers who are, as she puts it, organizers at heart.

Marita Canedo:
They have this hunger for keeping the fight in the movement.

Anna Canning:
These worker leaders become part of the coordinating committee, 8 to 10 people who set Migrant Justice’s priorities, based on the needs they see in their own communities.

Marita Canedo:
Most of the migrant community that work in dairy farms are coming from South Mexico and Guatemala, and they come here because there is all year round work. So it’s different than crops. They don’t have to follow the crop, it’s not seasonal. And housing is going to be provided by the farm, which then helps people not to be paying rent or trying to find a housing situation. However, when people come here, in a rural state, and near to the border; geographically, people don’t know where they are. And it’s very isolated because there is no town or a store or, you know, a barrio where everybody can gather together.

Anna Canning:
Vermont is a very rural state, as Marita points out. And dairy farms dotting the New England countryside is definitely part of the image of the state. As she puts it,

Marita Canedo:
Vermont is not a big dairy state for the country, but dairy is a big industry for the state.

Anna Canning:
While dairy is a big industry for the state, the farms are small by national standards. Mega-dairies out west can milk 10,000 or more cows – by contrast, the average farm here has just a couple hundred cows. But the conditions on these farms are similar to what Crispin Hernandez described on New York dairy farms in the first episodes of this season. 12-15 hour shifts, sometimes without a break. 60-80 hour weeks, sometimes without a day off. It’s dangerous work.

And it’s isolating too. These small farms average 5 to 7 workers. The workers are far outnumbered by the cows.

But the exploitative conditions don’t end there. As Marita said, there are definitely advantages to farms providing housing. But there can also be disadvantages…

Marita Canedo:
Housing situations can be really difficult because farms can be really old, they sometimes have old trailers or crowded trailers for people to live in. An example is like, there are trailers for four people where seven people are living. We know sometimes housing is provided on top of the parlor and or besides the machines, the milking machines. So noise is a problem.

There are fumes of manure also, it’s a problem. And Vermont is a very cold state. We have a winter, maybe six months a year, and there are housing situations where there is no heat system and other basic safety violations, like no smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, or things like that.

Anna Canning:
Crowded, unhealthy living conditions are one disadvantage. And living on the farm also means that people are basically stuck at work. Because while Vermont conjures up images of rolling pastured hills and the New England countryside, there’s another consideration that the farmworker communities are very aware of.

Marita Canedo:
We are really near to Canada. Some farms are right there on the border, which means immigration enforcement has jurisdiction mostly through all the state.

Anna Canning:
This closeness to the border means extra threats for the migrant communities who work on Vermont’s dairy farms. While the U.S. Constitution bars law enforcement from doing random stops and searches, those basic constitutional principles don’t fully apply at the border. And it’s not just right at a border crossing. Border Patrol agents have the power to set up random immigration checkpoints anywhere within 100 miles of any U.S. “external boundary.”

According to the ACLU, that means that approximately 2/3 of the United States’ population lives within one of these zones.

Marita Canedo:
So, we know that up in the farms [in the] North, people are really afraid to leave the farm. If they have to walk to work, for example, they try to find hours early in the morning trying to avoid crossing paths with Border Patrol. So they have jurisdiction for mostly the whole state and that’s a constant fear for people that they could be detained and deported.

Anna Canning:
If you started out interviewing corporate supply chain experts in distant offices about the key issues facing people working on dairy farms, this might not be one of the solutions that they came up with. But the worker leaders organizing with Migrant Justice know what they and their communities struggle with on a daily basis. One of their very first campaigns was for access to transportation – the basic freedom of mobility.

Marita Canedo:
Living in a rural state, the problem of having access to food, going to the doctor, knowing that you have a family member, maybe five miles away and there’s no way to get there. There’s no public transportation.

Anna Canning:
Through their organizing, Migrant Justice won the right for people to get drivers’ licenses in Vermont regardless of immigration status. That victory was in 2014.

Marita Canedo:
And that was a really good achievement. It changed the life of people in the state. But also with that, had to come something about stopping the police collaborating with immigration enforcement. Because what was happening is that passengers in the car will be taken into detention just for being immigrants, not speaking the language, or how they look. And we had to stop that because when people are driving just for a typical traffic stop, that could be putting them into deportation procedures.

Anna Canning:
Racial profiling in traffic stops has steep consequences for communities of color. And, when the power of ordinary policing blurs with that of the Border Patrol, it can mean the difference between someone getting a warning for a broken tail light and being forced to leave the country and their community.

To defend their newly won freedom of movement, once again Migrant Justice joined forces with human rights advocates in Vermont. The result: a mandate for local law enforcement to adopt a Fair and Impartial Policing Policy.

Marita Canedo:
And that means that the police cannot act as immigration enforcement. They have no reason to collaborate with Border Patrol

Also that has been a big change for the community to feel safer driving around and really having more access to any need that they have.

Anna Canning:
Dairy farm workers had organized and won new legal protections, not just for themselves, but for people across the state of Vermont.

Winning these campaigns…

Marita Canedo:
…brought people together and gave them more freedom to move around, to speak up, to feel empowered.

Anna Canning:
Workers organizing with Migrant Justice had built up their power and changed state laws. But they were still living in cramped, drafty trailers. Still working long, dangerous hours with little time for rest.

Marita Canedo:
So, we were trying to figure out a way and a model to solve this.

Anna Canning:
And that’s how, from all the way up in Vermont, they connected with an organization formed by farmworkers in the tomato fields of Florida.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has a long, successful track record of worker-led organizing to defend human rights. Through their Fair Food Program, they have stamped out forced labor and improved wages and conditions for farmworkers. Inspired by their model, organizers with Migrant Justice brought the key message back to the barns of Vermont. They went on to build a similar program based on a central tenet:

Marita Canedo:
Workers are the leaders of the change. They are the experts, they know what is needed.

Anna Canning:
They called this worker-led program Milk with Dignity. The workers recognized that their terrible working and living conditions didn’t begin on the farms where they spent their days. Instead, they saw that their conditions on Vermont farms were set far away in the corporate boardrooms of big food companies. They saw that the push for higher profits and lower prices squeezes farmers, driving down their earnings. And that in turn puts the pressure on farmers to keep workers’ wages low and skip out on proper housing and safety equipment.

To push back on that race to the bottom, the workers developed standards, setting the bar for what a dignified workplace should look like.

And those standards are just one part of the five pillars of the Milk with Dignity program.

Marita Canedo:
So we have the standards created by the workers, the education to all the people in the farm, and the enforcement mechanism for compliance. And then we have the money.

Marita Canedo:
The company pays a premium to the farms directly for compliance with the Code of Conduct. So that money cannot be used for more cows, or a new tractor; it has to be for compliance with the Code of Conduct. And each farm has their own priorities that the workers are going to define. And then to be sure that these four elements are in place and that the company is taking responsibility, we have a legal agreement.

So, Migrant Justice signs a legal agreement with the company to be sure that they are going to be passing on the premium and that they are going to be sourcing from farms that are going to sign onto the program and comply with the code of conduct.

Anna Canning:
And to ensure that farms getting the premium are complying with the terms of the deal, the workers set up the Milk with Dignity Standards Council.

Marita Canedo:
Which is a set of investigators that are bilingual, they are in place. They can go to the farms whenever it’s needed. They have a 24/7 support line. They are kind of the tool for better communication and compliance with the code.

Anna Canning:
At every step from standards development to enforcement, frontline workers on the farms are in the drivers’ seat. And part of building that worker power is on-going education.

Marita Canedo:
As soon as the farm enters the program, they have an education session. And so workers know that there’s the support line 24/7, they meet with some of the investigators of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council and also the farmer or the managers are also in this education session. So, everybody knows that there is this tool for better communication.

If I’m a worker under the Milk with Dignity program and something happens, I know I can freely call the support line because I’m protected from retaliation. That’s a big, important part of the program. People can call, complain, make suggestions, and they cannot be fired or punished for it.

Anna Canning:
Back in the first episode, when I talked to Crispin about his experiences working on a dairy farm, he told the story of having been fired in retaliation for organizing with his coworkers. That would have been forbidden under the terms of the Milk with Dignity program.

Instead, the program requires that employers give a cause for firing or disciplinary action.

Marita Canedo:
People cannot be fired without any reason and without a process. So that builds trust for people. If I’m working under the Milk with Dignity program, I know I have access to talk to the Council and the investigators, or if I feel confident enough to talk to my manager or my employer, I can do it knowing that there is not going to be retaliation.

Anna Canning:
In the last two episodes, we talked a lot about how farmworkers in the United States have historically been written out of many of the laws that spell out basic protections and minimum wages. Farmworkers in Vermont are exempt from the state’s minimum wage law. But the Milk with Dignity program requires that people working on participating farms get at least the same minimum wage as other working people. And they also tackle issues that haven’t gotten enough attention.

Marita Canedo:
And same with housing, there is a crisis and nobody was taking into account how people were living. So while farms can receive a lot of money for conservation land or other issues, they weren’t taking into account that people were living in inhumane conditions. So, yeah, it was really important to have the standards created by the workers that are there every day. And they will tell us, like a broken window can be really important to be fixed because then we’re going to get cold and it’s winter, and we’re not going to be able to go to work or things like that.

Anna Canning:
Vermont dairy workers came together and won new laws to protect their freedom of movement throughout their rural communities. They built their vision for how to tackle their unfair working conditions and bring dignity to their workplaces. The next step was to actually enlist a brand to participate in the vision for Milk with Dignity.

Marita Canedo:
Since Migrant Justice started, we had Ben & Jerry’s at home. They are here in Vermont. So we have always been in talks with them about how they should be responsible for the farm workers in bringing the cream to their ice cream.

Anna Canning:
Initially, Ben & Jerry’s resisted. But Migrant Justice persisted, calling on them to live up to their image as a responsible company.

Marita Canedo:
And we know you can do it. You can be the champion because you have a social mission. And you’ve been doing a lot for animal welfare and the environmental issues, but you’re not doing anything for the human factor and the people that are milking the cows. So we had long conversations until we decided to launch a public campaign. And it was more than two years in a public campaign with actions.

<Facebook Livestream Clip>
“One, two, three, four: Milk with Dignity at your door. Five, six, seven, eight: two years too late.”

Marita Canedo:
We had a 13 mile march. We were having street fairs, marches, actions, many, many things, letters of support. And finally they realized, okay, we need to sit with the farm workers and talk to them. And it was a very historic moment. October 3rd, 2017, Ben and Jerry’s signed the agreement.

And what is really empowering for our community is it is the first time in history that a CEO signed an agreement with dairy farmworkers. And also when you see the contract, you see the Ben and Jerry’s signature is one signature of the CEO. When you see the Migrant Justice side, you see all our coordination committee leaders signing. That shows how collective power, collective solutions, and really the workers led to this amazing progress.

Anna Canning:
This agreement between a CEO and farmworkers was groundbreaking. While the CEO’s actions directly impact the workers producing the food that they sell, it’s rare to see a signed contract that directly acknowledges that. And acknowledges the responsibility for protecting human rights that comes with it.
That contract is key to the Milk with Dignity program, and the Fair Food program developed by the tomato farmworkers in Florida. Together, they describe their model as Worker-driven Social Responsibility. That’s in contrast to more conventional Corporate Social Responsibility.

In a Worker-driven program like this, the workers’ role is acknowledged:

Marita Canedo:
They are the experts, they know what is needed.

It’s completely different and a company has to change their mind and switch this dynamic of power because now they are going to listen to the directly impacted community that are not only there milking cows, but also analyzing the industry and bringing a solution, not only for them, but for the company, for the farmers and for the workers.

Anna Canning:
Since 2017 when Ben & Jerry’s signed onto the program, conditions have changed for farmworkers. Workers earn higher wages for one thing. Those are the kinds of impacts that can be added up – and Milk with Dignity has complete reporting on their site detailing the impacts.

The standards also include requirements for days off.

Marita Canedo:
So people can take time and rest. There are more families now on farms, so people can take time with their kids.

Anna Canning:
Without the fear of retaliation, without worrying about getting fired for organizing, workers continue to organize to improve their conditions.

Marita Canedo:
Workers have been organizing in farms under the program to ask for more things, maybe more wages without fear of retaliation, housing improvements. Some farms have been able to bring new housing and repair the old housing conditions.

And then a very important thing, sexual harassment is something that wasn’t talked about too much, but we have cases where for years there were people harassing women in a farm. Under the program, finally these women felt empowered enough to talk to the manager. That person was fired immediately for harassing women. And then the Milk with Dignity Standards Council followed up with him to be sure that he wasn’t threatening the people in any way. So it was really powerful to see that. We have cases like that compared with farms outside of the program where this doesn’t happen.

Anna Canning:
Gender-based violence is another way that the power imbalance plays out on farms all too often. A 2010 study of women working on farms in California’s Central Valley found that 80% of them had experienced sexual harassment on the job. But another report shows that the worker-led Fair Food Program, that’s the model on which Milk with Dignity is based, has been incredibly successful at stamping out such harassment.

With their signatures side-by-side with the Ben & Jerry’s CEO, workers in the Milk with Dignity program have similar power to set the terms in their workplaces.

Last episode, when I talked to Crispin Hernandez who was organizing with farmworkers in Chobani’s supply chain, Fair Trade USA put a label on their yogurt declaring it was fair before people working on farms even knew what “fair trade” was. They had no idea that the unfair conditions in their workplace were being sold as fair to consumers at grocery stores. It’s another reminder that those feel-good labels and claims that are thrown at you when you’re shopping do NOT paint a full picture.

That’s not how the Milk with Dignity program works…

Marita Canedo:
Yeah. I think one important thing is that we’re not a label that is going to confuse consumers to say that this is fair or this is certified. And it’s not true because we know that real change takes time. So the difference first is that the workers are involved in the process of creating the standards. They know their rights, they are educated. They know how to put a complaint and bring a solution. There is a space for the farm managers, owners, and employers, to all come together and think about different solutions for problems.

The enforcement mechanism is really important because the investigators are not parachuting in and just bringing a yes/no checkbox. There are audits that are very thorough conversations with the workers, the support line that is 24/7 is there. I mean, every element of this program makes it possible that the things are really gonna happen and that the people understand well the process of how to make these things happen.

And I think that’s the difference with other certification programs that just come once a year, make some questions, don’t explain what they are doing. And then they put the label on the product and consumers think that they are buying things that are fair when it’s not true.

Anna Canning:
That commitment to putting real, lasting change ahead of marketing means that the Milk with Dignity program is expanding slowly.

Marita Canedo:
Right now, we have only Ben and Jerry’s as a company that signed on into the program. We are in the middle of a public campaign asking Hannaford for supermarkets to join the program and in conversations with other companies, because we again know that this is being a real change.

Anna Canning:
Stay tuned til the end of the episode because we’ll have ways for you to get involved and support the farmworkers making this change.

And this change – it’s not just about putting a label on a tub of ice cream in the grocery store and calling it a day. As our conversation continued, we came full circle back to where we’d started. There’s some similarity between that struggle that Marita came from in Bolivia and what we see happening in the dairy industry.

In Bolivia, she saw vital human rights like water handed over to corporations to profit from. And here too, we see corporations given power over food, and the basics of our livelihoods. The common thread is this idea of free markets. The idea that businesses should set the terms of what’s good for people and the government should just get out of the way.

Marita Canedo:
But it’s a complete lie because only the companies that have a lot of money and the power to expand are going to go and extract the resources from our countries, taking away the power of the workers themselves. They become this big corporation, owning other corporations, owning other corporations that are exploiting people.

Anna Canning:
That same corporate consolidation that gives corporations massive power to extract wealth overseas is transforming the landscape here in the U.S. as well.

Marita Canedo:
It’s happening and it’s happening fast. And I think we need to be very careful about this because we see in Vermont there used to be thousands of dairy farms, and now we have around 700. But the production of milk hasn’t gone down, it’s still the same, which means not only cows are more exploited and the environment is suffering a lot from these conglomerations, but workers are working more hours with less protections and, at the end of the day, we are just eating some great cheese, having milk or yogurt thinking it’s fair. But at the end of the day, what we’re eating is just abuses. And one company owning all this without understanding how the people milking the cows are really living.

Anna Canning:
I ask Marita, what I ask every guest: What would it look like to have a truly fair dairy industry?

Marita Canedo:
I think we have to acknowledge that the price for milk is still the same as in the seventies, and that has its part of this conglomeration of companies. So I think we need to look up to that. Farm workers are organizing. Farm workers in different states are unionizing, farm workers are bringing in Milk with Dignity. We have the solutions.

We need more Milk with Dignity in more states, but we need the participation of farmers understanding that the pressure that they put on the workers is not the solution. They have to fight these companies. We have to really understand the supply chains. The idea for our part is expansion of Milk with Dignity, because that’s going to respect the workers’ leadership. Either if they want to go with unions, they support each other. It’s not one or the other. But it’s the baseline to comply with basic human rights.

Anna Canning:
Corporate consolidation is growing. But worker power is too. And there’s a place for each of us to support it.

Marita Canedo:
I think this pandemic year has taught us and enforced the way that communities together, we are bigger than sometimes we think, we can support each other. We need to be in solidarity with the most impacted communities in our country and in the world. And let’s keep in solidarity and allyship with people that are really bringing the change from the bottom to top.

Anna Canning:
One way you can get involved and share this spirit of solidarity is to support Migrant Justice’s campaign to get Hannaford’s supermarkets to join the Milk with Dignity program. If you have friends or family who live in the Northeastern U.S., share this episode with them. And we’ll have a link in the show notes with several actions that help support this national movement for dignity and economic justice in dairy supply chains.

And if you’re in the Northeast, on November 8th, Migrant Justice is having a big action at the Hannaford headquarters to demand “Milk with Dignity.” There’s more on that in the show notes too.

In the past three episodes, we’ve heard how frontline workers have organized to challenge unjust laws, to improve their lives, homes, and livelihoods. And one of the key takeaways here is something that I think we know instinctively, but sometimes ignore when it comes to talking about certifications and supply chains. More rules alone doesn’t translate to better conditions.

Have you ever walked into a staff breakroom with post-it notes and printed notices everywhere, spelling out all the things you shouldn’t do from leaving dishes unwashed to leaving the coffee pot empty – notes stuck on notes all stuck above a pile of unwashed dishes. Sometimes that’s what conversations about certification can feel like. Except they’re talking about people’s fundamental rights and dignity, not an ongoing battle over dishes.

Instead of just writing still more rules, the Milk with Dignity program we’ve been talking about this episode tackles the problems farmworkers face head-on. They have strong standards, crafted by the people most impacted by them. Then they take the next step to real enforcement. They equip workers with the training and education to be frontline defenders of their own rights, and work with farmers to bring them into the process. And in this system, workers are the ones to call out violations of the rules. And then those rules are the bargain signed by the workers themselves and the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. Together, they’ve pledged to make good working conditions a requirement for selling to Ben & Jerry’s. And Ben & Jerry’s has backed that pledge with real resources, payments to help farmers make the changes needed to support decent working conditions.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen “essential workers” throughout the food system forced to work in dangerous situations, without sick leave or good protections. The latest impact report from Migrant Justice shows how their Milk with Dignity Program passed the stress test that this year has been:

“Workers experienced a reduced risk of infection due to improved conditions, and workers who did get sick were able to receive paid sick leave in order to recuperate and self-isolate, further reducing community spread. Not a single worker on a Milk with Dignity farm has [had the] experience of losing pay or being forced to work while sick.”

Earlier this year, we put out a report breaking down Fair Trade USA’s dairy standard – that’s the label that Crispin and workers in Chobani’s supply chain were opposing in the first two episodes. There’s a table in that report that compares Fair Trade USA’s standard to the Milk with Dignity program. We’ll link to that in the show notes as well – but the truth is, they’re barely comparable.

Milk with Dignity puts workers front and center. It’s committed to seriously addressing human rights in the dairy industry. Fair Trade USA’s dairy program does not. As our report concludes:

“Corporate consolidation, trade policy, and other macro trends are squeezing farmers and workers in the dairy industry. To address the forces at work requires addressing the imbalance of power head on. If we are to envision a world where those at the top of supply chains are held accountable, we must support programs that are transformative. Instead of reinforcing existing systems of power, we should look to the leadership of those who have been protesting, leading, and advocating for their own communities for hundreds of years.”

Real solutions exist. Marita and Migrant Justice are proof of that. It’s time we join together to support them.

Dana Geffner:
Our food system is built on exploitation. It’s built on overworking and underpaying people – both in the U.S. and around the globe. To change that means we need to address the imbalance of power head on.

Worker-led solutions like Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity are scaled to do that. But it’s clear that corporations won’t just come along willingly towards these solutions. Before Chobani went with Fair Trade USA’s weak label, they actually met with Migrant Justice. They discussed Milk with Dignity, and ultimately went with an easier, corporate friendly solution.

But that’s not going to make the real change we need in our food system.

Every time we’re offered a false corporate-led solution, let’s remember whose interest it serves. False solutions rebrand exploitation, renaming the status quo as “fair” and “ethical.” But it’s not.

One of the threads that runs through Marita and Anna’s conversation is the growing power of corporations, and the on-going push for more market solutions and less government regulation of these powerful corporations. Every day, headlines point to how these market solutions are failing in the dairy industry. From exploited workers to failing family farms to abused animals and disastrous environmental consequences. While the pictures that sell milk and dairy are pastoral and pretty, the reality is far from that.

And so, over the next few episodes, we’re going to look at these other elements of the dairy industry. The squeeze of corporate consolidation has hit small-scale dairy farmers hard. Next episode we’ll talk to Jim Goodman of National Family Farmers Coalition and Family Farm Defenders. He was one of those small-scale farmers who felt that squeeze on his own farm – and has fought back for decades.

Until then, sign up for our newsletter to stay connected for more ways to keep building towards a fair and just food system – we share actions large and small that you can take to support people on the frontlines of working for a better world.

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Squeezed Out: Small Dairy Farmers in Crisis

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There's a crisis in dairy – shrinking family farms, corporate consolidation, and low milk prices. In Jim Goodman's four decades of dairy farming, he's seen the impacts of the push to "get big or get out" first hand. His farm is gone, but he still advocates for a food system that puts people first.

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