US Catholic Faith in Real Life

COMMENTARY: How Wendy’s can do the right thing for tomato pickers in Florida

By Rachel Kahn-Troster | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

c. 2014 Religion News Service

(RNS) Standing outside the Park Avenue offices of Trian Partners recently, home to Wendy’s Chairman Nelson Peltz, a group of rabbinical students chanted, “It’s a shanda (Yiddish for “disgrace”), it’s a shame, Wendy’s is the one to blame!”

They had gathered outside the management fund’s offices to decry Wendy’s refusal to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, which ensures the human rights of farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields. The program — which all of Wendy’s major competitors have already joined — was recently heralded on the front page of The New York Times as the country’s “best workplace-monitoring program.”

For these rabbinical students, summer fellows of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, standing on the front lines for justice is central to understanding themselves as emerging religious leaders.

“Worker exploitation is a spiritual crisis for all of us,” said rabbinical student Alex Weissman. “If my work as a rabbi is to tend to people’s souls — this is that work.”

As a rabbi whose faith tradition demands that workers be paid fairly, I find it hard to understand why Wendy’s won’t join the program. A new world of k’vod habriot, human dignity, is being built for Florida’s tomato pickers, as human rights are written into the very fabric of an industry once known for punishing conditions: wage theft, violence, sexual harassment.

Thanks to the pioneering work of the CIW, collaboration among farmworkers, growers and 12 corporate retailers is establishing an unparalleled, worker-led system of accountability, transparency and enforcement.

The “Tomato Rabbis” had demonstrated outside the Wendy’s annual shareholder meetings, held rallies at Wendy’s restaurants across 15 cities and sent multiple letters, signed by 36 rabbis, to Peltz, urging Wendy’s to meet with the CIW. Finally, we received the only formal response yet: a letter repeating the same tired arguments and a refusal to meet with us.

That’s why, on July 8, we tried to meet Peltz in person. No surprise, we were told Peltz was not in the office, and no one else was available to hear our concerns. And yet, moments later, as we filed into the elevator to return to the bottom floor, out walked none other than Peltz himself. As he quickly disappeared behind closed doors, we returned to the receptionist and asked again to speak to him. We were told it just wouldn’t be possible.

We ask Wendy’s: If not now, when? Corporate values such as “do the right thing” and “treat people with respect” are meaningless when there is a proven solution to abuse in your supply chain.

When I bring rabbis to Immokalee, I hear stories of how life can be different for workers when an industry is rebuilt on principles of chesed, lovingkindness.

Why is it so critical for us, as consumers, as people of faith, to join a story already producing profound change? Because the historic successes flourishing in tomato fields could both strengthen and expand to workers in other crops in other states.

Without it, there will continue to be a market for produce harvested in fields where the basic human dignity of workers — the recognition of their creation in the image of God — is not respected. Joining the Fair Food Program is not just about good business for Wendy’s. It is a moral imperative.

As I left the house to go protest that morning, my 6-year-old daughter ran up to me and said, “Mummy, go fight for justice.” The Torah insists that we are all called to do “what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19). Now it is time for Wendy’s to heed that call.

(Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.)