Since they began a campaign in January to persuade Wendy’s to sign a fair food agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), advocates for farm worker rights have observed a change in tone from the fast food giant in the weeks leading up to its annual shareholder meeting.
Susan Carter and other members of Ohio Fair Food recently visited eight Wendy’s restaurants in Columbus, Ohio to ask the managers to support the CIW. “Most managers were courteous, but all but one refused to talk to us or take our manager’s letter,” she said.
“On previous visits to Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Chipotle over the past two years, managers have always listened to us courteously, accepted our manager’s letter, and agreed to pass it on to their upper management,” Carter said.
“Needless to say, we were disappointed in the response we received at Wendy’s, especially since Mr. Lynch, Senior Vice President of Communications, had received us so graciously when ten of us visited Wendy’s headquarters in January.”
CIW supporters also received a chilly reception when they visited Wendy’s stores in Cincinnati last week. Store managers said that they’d been told not to interact with the delegations or receive any information from them. They threatened to call the police if the protesters didn’t leave.
Store managers provided contact information for Bob Bertini, Wendy’s Director of Communications, and said that all questions about the dispute with the CIW should be directed to him. Mr. Bertini did not respond to inquiries left on his voice mail.
Last Thursday morning, as the Wendy’s shareholder meeting proceeded in New York City, Bertini agreed to speak with one CIW supporter. Under police escort, Jessica Shimberg was permitted to walk into Wendy’s corporate headquarters in Dublin, Ohio to have a conversation. However, Bertini declined to say anything substantive about how Wendy’s would respond to the CIW’s invitation to join its Fair Food Program.
This high-handed approach to public relations seems strange in light of CEO Emil Brolick’s emphasis in the shareholder meeting on the importance of customers developing a deeper emotional connection to the Wendy’s brand.
When he was president of Taco Bell in 2005, Brolick warmly endorsed the CIW’s Fair Food Program when his company agreed to sign on to it, pledging specific steps to improve the wages and working conditions for Florida farm workers who harvest the tomatoes used in its food products.
But as CEO of Wendy’s, Brolick’s statements in the shareholder meeting about Wendy’s participation in the Fair Food Program were misleading at best. In a charitable interpretation, Brolick may believe that Wendy’s can adhere to the “spirit” of the Fair Food Program by monitoring its own tomato suppliers to ensure that workers are being treated fairly, without entering into a formal agreement with the CIW.
The problem with this approach is that there’s no transparency. How do consumers know that Wendy’s monitoring is not self-serving, the equivalent of “the fox guarding the hen house”? This is the missing piece that the CIW’s Fair Food Program provides: independent auditing and oversight by the Fair Food Standards Council.
It’s easy for corporations to trumpet “social responsibility” as a selling point for their products. It seems to be much harder for them to allow transparency to their operations so that consumers can make truly informed choices.