Farmworker allies advocate for rights at Wendy's shareholder meeting

More than 60 allies protested outside of Wendy's headquarters in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Dublin, where the shareholder meeting took place May 23. (Courtesy of Alliance for Fair Food)

Twenty-seven allies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers attended Wendy's annual shareholder meeting to show support for human rights issues concerning farmworkers.

The allies consisted of religious leaders, farmworkers and students, several of whom addressed their concerns to a room full of the fast-food chain's corporate workers, including president and CEO Todd Penegor. More than 60 allies protested outside of Wendy's headquarters in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Dublin, where the shareholder meeting took place May 23.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a worker-based human rights organization headquartered in Florida, accuses Wendy's of endorsing slave-labor conditions and abuse among farmworkers because the fast-food chain imports its tomatoes from Mexico, a country known for its unethical treatment of farmworkers. Formerly, Wendy's bought tomatoes from Florida during colder months but has been getting them from Mexico over the past few years.

Related: Hunger strikes protesting Wendy's snowball across college campuses (April 21, 2017)

Though Sr. Karen Bernhardt of the Villa Maria, Pennsylvania-based Sisters of the Humility of Mary has been working with farmworkers for more than 20 years, speaking for them at a corporate shareholders meeting was a new experience for here.

She told NCR she believes supporting farmworkers and protesting human rights injustices, is a major component of Catholic social teaching.

Wendy's corporate workers "were respectful, but made it was very clear they have their own way of doing a code of conduct. But they wouldn't be transparent," she said.

In addition to importing its tomatoes from Mexico, Wendy's has yet to join the coalition's worker-driven Fair Food Program, a partnership among farmers, farmworkers and food companies that ensures livable wages and humane conditions for produce pickers. Fourteen major food retailers are members of the program, including Aramark, Yum! Brands, Walmart, McDonald's and Subway.

Rick Ufford-Chase, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), spoke at the meeting on behalf of the 1.5-million member Protestant denomination.

"I think it's critical for all people of conscience, Christian or otherwise, to be involved in this movement," Ufford-Chase said. "We have an obligation to demand the best behavior from the organizations that we support. What mystifies me is that Wendy's thinks it can possibly benefit from standing against an industry standard that 14 of their competitors have signed on to and become a part of."

According to Ufford-Chase, the Presbyterian Church (USA) joined the national boycott against Wendy's in 2016.

"The irony is I like Wendy's a lot. It's been my favorite fast-food [restaurant]," Ufford-Chase said. He told NCR he would start eating at Wendy's again when it joins the Fair Food Program.

Bernhardt also said she would eat at Wendy's again if it joined the program.

After the shareholder meeting ended, all 27 coalition allies quietly walked out of the room holding up signs that said "Boycott Wendy's" in the company's logo's image. "It was very powerful," Bernhardt said.

[Shireen Korkzan is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

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