REPORT: In Ohio, the Fair Food Nation makes the case for real human rights at Wendy's 2017 shareholder meeting!

On Tuesday at Wendy's annual shareholder meeting in Dublin, OH , Wendy's decision-makers once again confronted the choice that has been before them since farmworkers first called on the fast food giant to work with the CIW in upholding human rights in the fields. Without a doubt, this is a choice that has become more stark and more urgent in the past year, with a tens of thousands-strong national boycott underway in response to Wendy's shameful shift of tomato purchases away from Fair Food Program participating farms in Florida, to Mexican farms rife with abuse and exploitation.

It was an extraordinary day sure to go down in the annals of Campaign for Fair Food history, not only because of the vibrant protest which welcomed meeting participants as they entered company headquarters. It was also so, because in an unprecedented move, a staggering 27 Fair Food supporters representing shareholders allied with the CIW entered the meeting to testify directly and in-person to Wendy's Board of Directors and executives why the fast food holdout must urgently join the Fair Food Program. What's more, eleven of them successfully managed to speak in support of real human rights protections for farmworkers in Wendy’s supply chain during the General Questions portion of the meeting, before company executives concluded the meeting and the delegation exited in proud display of boycott logos.

Today, we bring you the full narrative and photo report of Tuesday's meeting: first, of the new and exciting encounters that took place inside, and then of the events that unfolded outside on that memorable day in Dublin. Next week, we'll pass along the CIW's upcoming in-depth analysis of Wendy's faulty and misleading arguments for not participating in the Fair Food Program, communicated by executives during the meeting and, right then and there, calmly and expertly debunked by farmworkers and allies for the company's leadership to hear.

Inside the Wendy's shareholder meeting:

As shareholders and Wendy’s executives filed into the headquarters’ Thomas Conference Center for the annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday morning, a group of 27 Fair Food supporters streamed in alongside them: nationally-respected religious leaders hailing from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, several Catholic orders of women religious, the National Farm Worker Ministry, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; students from three Boot the Braids schools, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, and UNC Chapel Hill; several community, faith and student leaders from Columbus, Cleveland, Miami, Nashville, and other cities; and of course, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.  In an unprecedented level of turnout, this formidable group of farmworkers and allies – interspersed throughout the room with other shareholders – constituted over half of the shareholders present, their numbers a tangible reflection of the impatience of consumers with Wendy’s unconscionable decision to turn its back on the Fair Food Program.

And when all was said and done, eleven of these representatives directed incisive questions to Wendy’s leadership during the final General Questions portion of the meeting, turning the topic of the Fair Food Program – and Wendy’s status as the final fast-food holdout from the award-winning program – into the dominant theme of the annual meeting.  

The shareholder meeting began with a “business overview” presentation from Todd Penegor, President and CEO, which painted a rosy picture of Wendy’s capturing more and more “share of stomach,” resulting in an increased stock price, cash flow, and ultimately dividends for shareholders over the past few years.  Mr. Penegor went on to present the “Wendy’s Way,” through which Wendy’s creates not only profits, but also “creates joy and opportunity through food, family, and community.”  He was followed by Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito, who offered shareholders the anticipated “Corporate Social Responsibility” update.

Ms. Esposito’s presentation began with a quick, system-wide review of progress under Wendy’s expanded Supplier Code of Conduct.  And remarkably, if not surprisingly, she was able to report that Wendy’s had “once again achieved 100% affirmation” from all suppliers that are covered by the code that they are “aware of and adhering to the obligations that we have put forward for them.”  [Ed note: The CIW will take a closer look at this astounding assertion and what it tells us about Wendy’s vision of social responsibility in next week's analysis.]

In light of this spectacular success, she then directed a complaint at the Fair Food allies in the room, several of whom she mentioned recognizing, saying “I’ll tell you that it’s not pleasant for us to see our brand criticized on a regular basis.”   

Ms. Esposito’s principal complaint with the Campaign for Fair Food, however, was that, at its heart, the campaign is a “commercial dispute” and that Wendy’s objects in principle to two things: first, engaging in a “labor relationship with the employees of our suppliers,” and second, to “paying fees to” the CIW.  She added before concluding her remarks, “we don’t believe that joining the Fair Food Program is the only way to act responsibly.”

After thanking Mr. Penegor and Ms. Esposito “for those very clear messages,” Board Chairman Nelson Peltz asked that the lights be turned on for the General Questions portion of the meeting.  And thus the stage was set for a truly remarkable show, as 11 of the 27 farmworkers and allies in the room approached the microphone one after another to deliver a series of razor-sharp statements that would, thread by thread, unravel the cheerful tapestry of well-intentioned, successful social responsibility efforts that Wendy’s executives had labored so painstakingly to weave.

The first to the floor was the former PC(USA) moderator Rick Ufford-Chase:

“Good morning, Mr. Chairman and the Board of Directors… I was the Moderator, our church’s highest elected office, when Taco Bell became the first major corporate buyer to work with farmworkers and growers to transform human rights abuses in U.S. agriculture through the Fair Food Program. I’m here today to urge Wendy’s to do the same…

… This is the only effective way to ensure that the scourge of slavery and abuse in the food system is eliminated. Instead of joining this proven program, Wendy’s has moved its purchasing of tomatoes to Mexico… I did human rights work on the U.S. / Mexico border for 20 years, and here’s what I know:  Escaping to Mexico to source your tomatoes does not relieve your moral quandary; it deepens it.  The Los Angeles Times documented one farm where 200 workers, including children, were in forced labor.  This is a farm where Wendy’s sources its tomatoes… Your refusal to join the Fair Food Program places you on the wrong side of history.  So long as you choose to remain there, the faith community intends to work tirelessly with our ecumenical and interfaith partners to assure that this boycott will be effective.  This movement has staying power within our churches.  

And for the record, until two years ago Wendy’s had been my own restaurant of choice for more than forty years, and I’ve got two children of my own who I adopted from the foster care system.  I share a lot of your core values.  I’d like very much to come back.”

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Penegor answered the question by referencing Wendy’s supplier Code of Conduct as the solution to any alleged past abuses in the fast-food restaurant’s supply chain.  He moved on to the next questioner after reassuring the shareholders that he was “comfortable and confident” that Wendy’s is supporting decent working conditions.  Mr. Ufford-Chase was followed by Lucas Benitez, one of the co-founders of the CIW:

“I have been a farmworker since I was 17 years old.  I have seen, up close, the two worlds – the one which we are coming from, and the one we’re in today thanks to the power of the corporations that are working together with us.  Among them are Wendy’s principal competitors, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell.  Thanks to this market power, we are now eliminating abuses that have been endemic in the U.S. agriculture industry.  Forced labor, modern-day slavery, the sexual harassment that has been the bread of every day for the millions of farmworker women who labor in the fields.  

The only thing we’re doing now is extending the invitation to Wendy’s to be part of this new day – to truly be a company that upholds American values.  Nevertheless, to this day, Wendy’s has refused to be part of these efforts and, ignoring the demands of its consumers, has shifted its purchases to Mexico, where the exploitation is extreme and unspeakable.  For those reasons, I direct my question to Mr. Penegor: with the incredible opportunity to join the Fair Food Program and demonstrate to your consumers true dedication to social responsibility, why do you continue to turn your backs to farmworkers, to your longtime suppliers in the transformed Florida tomato industry, and to all the consumers demanding fairly harvested produce?”

Board Chairman Nelson Peltz, instead of responding to a question directly from the farmworker community of Immokalee, or even bothering to reference the Code of Conduct, simply replied with “Thank you.”  After a stiff moment of silence, AFF's Patricia Cipollitti came in after Lucas, and directly refuted the false claim from Liliana Esposito that the CIW receives “fees” from participating buyers.  Patricia pointed out that – as stated countless times publicly by Judge Laura Safer Espinoza of the Fair Food Standards Council, among others – the “penny per pound” Fair Food premium never even passes through the CIW, but rather is paid to growers through regular purchasing channels and is then distributed to workers through regular payroll channels, all in a process carefully and painstakingly monitored by the Fair Food Standards Council.

Next up was Ohio State Professor, Dr. Pranav Jani: 

“I’ve been very surprised and astounded that Wendy’s hasn’t gone along with the Fair Food Program like many of its competitors have… 

…I want to point out two ways in which [the Wendy’s code] is inferior and I hope you then will answer my question. The first is that the Code of Conduct purports to be against the abuse of farmworkers but only the FFP involves a mandatory code.  This is like saying you’re against abuses, but not actually enforcing it.  And actions speak louder than words… 

… The second way in which it is inferior to the Fair Food Program is that the FFP involves the direct participation of workers in actually creating the code; it includes worker-to-worker education; workers can participate in health and safety committees on every farm; they have access to a 24-hour worker hotline to report abuse.  Wendy’s code is notably silent on worker participation in determining how the code of conduct is actually to work… So this is my question to the CSR Board committee: could you explain to shareholders how the mere expectations in your corporate supplier code of conduct, without any enforcement mechanism, are sufficient to adequately protect workers’ rights?”

Professor Jani’s questions, which went straight to the heart of Wendy’s hypocrisy in equating their Code of Conduct with the worker-driven Fair Food Program, elicited the most substantive response yet from both Mr. Penegor and Ms. Esposito.  Wendy’s executives reiterated that they were extremely “proud” of their Code of Conduct, arguing forcefully that their “expectations” for suppliers had been effectively communicated, that their third party auditors monitor the entirety of the Wendy’s hand-harvested vegetable supply chain for any violations (“not just tomatoes”), and that Wendy’s would cut off any suppliers found to be in violation of their Code.  Mr. Penegor added, “that’s the enforcement tool.”

Ms. Esposito asserted that Wendy’s had begun to implement the Code of Conduct in the operations of existing suppliers to ensure that the “strong contracts” already in place would serve as the enforcement mechanism, given Wendy’s failure to be satisfied with human rights, food safety, quality, or other ethical standards could lead even to contract termination.  She added, “up to three years ago, we purchased our winter tomatoes from Florida, and we purchased from suppliers that were members of the Fair Food Program. And this campaign against us was raging at that time, too.” She concluded, then, that working with suppliers abiding by FFP standards was not what was wrong; “What was wrong, was not paying into this.”

Yet, in spite of delivering what Wendy’s surely hoped would be a final word on the matter, that was not the end of the conversation.  Professor Jani, who continued to press executives on how they could possibly ensure their code without worker participation, was followed by OSU student faster Henry Peller; Sister Mary Ellen Gondeck, SSJ, from the Congregation of St. Joseph and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility; Edie Rassell, the Minister for Economic Justice of the United Church of Christ; Rabbi Daniel Kirzane of T’ruah (who was told by Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz that his “life was full of rabbis” already and so he would not meet with T’ruah!); Wendy Ake, Columbus ally and director at the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, who warned Wendy’s of the shortsightedness of failing to meet what is now an industry standard in social responsibility, given consumer trends; Rev. Lynda Smith of the First Unitarian Universalist congregation of Columbus, who addressed CEO Todd Penegor in saying that she would “pray that your blindness be removed from you”; and finally, University of Michigan student Kim Daley, who made a final push with executives to explain the lack of transparency built into Wendy’s Code of Conduct, only to be met with the executives’ continued refusal to identify the who, what, where, when, and how of the “third-party audits.”

Increasingly agitated, and clearly concerned about losing control of the annual meeting’s agenda, Nelson Peltz adjourned the meeting.

And outside, the protest continues:

Even as the drama was unfolding inside the Thomas Conference Center, over 60 allies gathered outside of the flagship Wendy’s across the street from the headquarters at 8 am, a sunny summer morning greeting those who began to arrive from as far as Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania.  

Ahead of the meeting, the crowd of protesters, arms filled with artwork, was warmed up with a welcome from Lucas Benitez as he prepared to enter the meeting.  He was joined by Rick Ufford-Chase, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Henry Anton Peller of the Ohio State Student/Farmworker Alliance and Real Food OSU, one of the 19 OSU students and alumni who precipitated two months of rolling student fasts around the country with a 7-day fast at OSU in March.  

Here are just a few highlights from their powerful words before they turned to head into the meeting:

Rick Ufford-Chase:  “…I’m here today because thirteen years ago, when I was serving as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I made my first trip to Immokalee.  I met Lucas and others, met with workers there and heard their stories, and we joined the Taco Bell Boycott…  I was in a church in New Orleans when I was buttonholed after I preached on this issue by four men in business suits who explained to me that it was impossible for Taco Bell to ever do what we were asking for, and we were unbelievably naïve to think that Taco Bell could do it, and we were going to learn our lesson.   Two weeks later came the announcement from Taco Bell that they were willing to become full partners in this project, and they’ve been those exceptional partners ever since.  That’s the message we want Wendy’s to hear today.  They may think that it’s not a direct line between the farms in Mexico, or the farms in Central Florida, to their board room — I’m here to assure them that the moral connection is clear and direct, and it cannot be escaped, and they can save themselves a lot of agony by giving in right now and becoming partners in this movement.  Amen!”

Rick Ufford-Chase:  “…I’m here today because thirteen years ago, when I was serving as the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I made my first trip to Immokalee.  I met Lucas and others, met with workers there and heard their stories, and we joined the Taco Bell Boycott…  I was in a church in New Orleans when I was buttonholed after I preached on this issue by four men in business suits who explained to me that it was impossible for Taco Bell to ever do what we were asking for, and we were unbelievably naïve to think that Taco Bell could do it, and we were going to learn our lesson.  

Two weeks later came the announcement from Taco Bell that they were willing to become full partners in this project, and they’ve been those exceptional partners ever since.  That’s the message we want Wendy’s to hear today.  They may think that it’s not a direct line between the farms in Mexico, or the farms in Central Florida, to their board room — I’m here to assure them that the moral connection is clear and direct, and it cannot be escaped, and they can save themselves a lot of agony by giving in right now and becoming partners in this movement.  Amen!”

Henry Anton Peller: “Are we ready to quit? [NO!]  Are we tired yet? [NO!]  Are we fired up? [YES!] Are we ready to win? [YES!]   Good morning, my name is Henry, and that is the message I have to bring to Wendy’s today; that is, to remind them of the power we are building across the country and that is waiting for them at every turn, with every piece of PR they put out, we will demand they join the Fair Food Program … As Mr. Brolick will remember, in the midst of a four year national boycott, 25 institutions terminated their contracts with Taco Bell in support of the Fair Food Program. History will repeat itself!  Today we are joined by students at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, and Vanderbilt University.  We are united in our determination to cut contracts with Wendy’s.  One of these universities will soon be the first to stand with the Fair Food Program and blaze the trail for dozens to follow.

Henry Anton Peller: “Are we ready to quit? [NO!]  Are we tired yet? [NO!]  Are we fired up? [YES!] Are we ready to win? [YES!]  

Good morning, my name is Henry, and that is the message I have to bring to Wendy’s today; that is, to remind them of the power we are building across the country and that is waiting for them at every turn, with every piece of PR they put out, we will demand they join the Fair Food Program … As Mr. Brolick will remember, in the midst of a four year national boycott, 25 institutions terminated their contracts with Taco Bell in support of the Fair Food Program. History will repeat itself!  Today we are joined by students at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, and Vanderbilt University.  We are united in our determination to cut contracts with Wendy’s.  One of these universities will soon be the first to stand with the Fair Food Program and blaze the trail for dozens to follow.

The crowd then erupted into a lively picket, accompanied by a drum team from Michigan and chants of “We are unstoppable!  Another world is possible!” “We ain’t buying what they’re selling, the people are rebelling, boycott Wendy’s! Boycott now!”  After just a short while of picketing, the CIW and allies were surprised to be invited to speak with Heidi Schauer (below, right), Wendy’s Director of Corporate Communications, to discuss with Wendy’s why the group was gathered outside the company’s national offices.

(To refresh your memory: Heidi Schauer’s first appearance on the boycott stage took place during the Ohio State University student fast, in which she was the first to be quoted claiming that the Campaign for Fair Food was a scheme designed to collect “fees” to be paid to the CIW.)

Lupe Gonzalo of the CIW took Wendy’s up on the opportunity.  After extending an invitation to Wendy’s to join farmworkers, growers, and 14 of their buyer peers in the Fair Food Program, Lupe contrasted the Fair Food Program with Wendy’s supplier Code of Conduct, pointing out that Wendy’s current approach to social responsibility lacks any effective enforcement mechanisms or worker participation.  Perhaps regretting her offer to meet, Ms. Schauer quickly cut off other customers who had also gathered to express their concerns, and explained that CIW and AFF representatives who had entered the meeting would hear directly from Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s Chief Communications Officer, as to the fast-food company’s response to the ongoing demand for Wendy’s to join the FFP.  Then she left.

Meanwhile, the picket continued for another hour of animated protest. Following the picket, the protesters gathered to share their various connections to the CIW and their community’s commitment to the Wendy’s Boycott.  The group — including representatives from worker-led struggles around the region against exploitation, displacement, and police brutality — shared their commitment to bringing the Wendy’s Boycott to their communities and supporting one another in their respective struggles for justice. 

Lupe Gonzalo of the CIW concluded the protest, before all participants headed to St. John's Episcopal Church in Columbus to hear a report from the Fair Food delegation that entered the meeting:

Lupe Gonzalo:  “We are more unified and stronger than ever, because we know that unity is what makes us strong in these times.  Wendy’s may think that humiliating us and ignoring us will make us go away, but they’re wrong — our community knows how to fight, and we are going to keep struggling harder than ever until Wendy’s treats farmworkers like human beings with dignity!”

Lupe Gonzalo:  “We are more unified and stronger than ever, because we know that unity is what makes us strong in these times.  Wendy’s may think that humiliating us and ignoring us will make us go away, but they’re wrong — our community knows how to fight, and we are going to keep struggling harder than ever until Wendy’s treats farmworkers like human beings with dignity!”

Stay tuned for more about the meeting, and next steps to take action in the campaign as we build upon this step taken in the Wendy's boycott! 

For now, take a look through more beautiful, inspiring photos from the protest: