Farm, Construction Worker Groups Create Trump Resistance Blueprint

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By Chris Opfer

Labor unions and worker advocates have been scrambling since the November elections to come up with a plan for action in the Age of Trump. A pair of local groups advocating for Florida tomato pickers and Texas construction workers may have the blueprint.

The Fair Food Program, a 12-year-old project created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, partners with farmers and big fast-food companies to increase tomato pickers’ wages and protect them on the job. The Texas Workers Defense Project has similarly had success pushing “better builder” standards to ensure that companies do right by workers who construct their offices, apartment buildings and other projects.

Both programs focus on supply-chain efforts that include workers’ direct employers and the companies that ultimately benefit from their labor. The groups have already landed some big fish: Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Yum! Brands Inc. and McDonald’s USA LLC are among the FFP participants, and Apple Inc. agreed after protracted negotiations to abide by better builder standards when it built a campus in Austin, Texas.

“I’m glad we depend on the market for enforcement, not the government,” Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired judge who works on the FFP’s enforcement board, told Bloomberg BNA March 30. “There is no reason why this model can’t be replicated and adapted in numerous industries, as long as you have a recognizable brand at the top of the supply chain.”

The supply-chain approach, using public pressure and local lobbying to get larger businesses and their contractors to play ball, may be attractive for advocates who fear federal labor law enforcement will dwindle on President Donald Trump’s watch. Trump recently proposed cutting the Labor Department’s annual budget by 21 percent, and right-to-work laws in a majority of states are seen as a threat to traditional labor unions.

Like any labor movement, however, the programs aren’t without their detractors.

Wendy’s Co. and Publix Super Markets Inc. are among those resisting pressure to join the FFP, saying that they don’t want to get involved in what amounts to labor disputes with other companies’ employees. Phil Thoden, president of the Austin Associated General Contractors, told Bloomberg BNA that Workers Defense Project is using public pressure and lobbying “as a tool to bludgeon people to come over to their side of the political spectrum.”

Representatives for Publix, Wal-Mart, Yum! and McDonald’s didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

A Penny a Pound

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers started with a ragtag group of mostly migrant farm workers who joined together to complain about low wages, long hours and unsafe work conditions.

The group eventually gained national attention with the help of celebrity backers, a high-profile documentary film and a straightforward request: that big tomato buyers pay an extra penny per pound for the vegetables and pass that money directly on to the workers who pick them. The coalition says those premiums have added more than $15 million to pickers’ paychecks since the Fair Food Program started.

“That premium gets passed down the chain and ends up as a line item on the workers’ paychecks,” Espinoza said. “It really counteracts the downward pressure that comes from the big food retailers at the top of the supply chain who put price pressure on farmers, which farmers in the general course of things pass on to workers.”

The FFP also requires participants to sign binding agreements on workplace standards meant to ensure workers are properly paid and combat discrimination, sexual harassment and unsafe work conditions. Those standards are enforced by what Espinoza calls a “v-shaped” contractual arrangement in which tomato suppliers pledge to play by the rules and buyers agree not to purchase from buyers who don’t live up to their end of the bargain.

The CIW got a big win when it convinced the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange—which covers some 90 percent of the tomato supply business statewide—to sign a Fair Food agreement in 2010. That followed successful efforts to get McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell to sign on to the programs, but not until after some hard-fought campaigns.

Consumer Education Helpful

“We had no choice but to persevere until we were able to educate enough consumers to generate enough pressure to overcome the buyers’ innate resistance to a new idea, and the Fair Food Program was still an untested idea at the time that Taco Bell and McDonald’s signed on,” CIW co-founder Greg Asbed told Bloomberg BNA March 30.

The CIW recently wrapped up several days of boycotts, marches and protests aimed at Wendy’s and staged in the company’s home state of Ohio. The group says the fast-food chain has shifted its tomato buying to operations in Mexico instead of signing on to the Fair Food Program.

The company says it doesn’t want any part of a beef between tomato growers and their workers.

“We do not believe that joining the Fair Food Program is the only way to act responsibly, and we pride ourselves on our relationships with industry-leading suppliers who share our commitment to quality, integrity and ethics,” Wendy’s spokeswoman Heidi Schauer told Bloomberg BNA March 29. She said Wendy’s relies on growers in Mexico and in parts of the U.S. for its tomatoes.

The CIW is funded by about $1.9 million in grants and contributions per year, according to tax records.

Filling a Void

The Texas Workers Defense Project started with a similar recipe, looking to convince larger companies such as Apple to force the construction companies they do business with to pay higher wages, offer benefits and step up safety protections. That strategy has shifted over time, however, with the group pushing local governments to require contractors to sign on to the Better Builder pledge.

The program “fills a void left by the lack of robust protections for construction workers in Texas,” Workers Defense’s Better Builder Program Director Bo Delp, told Bloomberg BNA. “One of the things we’re most proud of is finding ways for cities and counties to reward businesses who are willing to invest in the well-being of their workers.”

That includes lobbying a local community college to include Better Builder standards in some $400 million worth of construction projects over the next several years and convincing the Austin City Council to require Apple to agree to a $12 minimum wage and safety training for construction workers in exchange for tax incentives.

The city council recently passed an ordinance obligating construction firms to commit to better builder standards in order to be eligible for an expedited project bidding process.

Apple didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

Workers Defense brought in nearly $2 million in funding from grants and contributions in 2014, according to tax records.

Joint Employer Trouble?

Like the Fair Food Program, Better Builder agreements largely rely on independent monitors for enforcement, including Workers Defense representatives in some cases. That’s where the trouble is for some builders, Thoden of Austin AGC said.

“You get in there and you start interviewing workers and the question is for what purpose,” Thoden said. “Is it to be an independent monitor or to try to organize the workers?”

That’s not to mention that some businesses may not want to be liable for possible wrongdoing by builders and their subcontractors. That’s particularly true in light of various efforts to expand joint employer liability for businesses related to arrangements with contractors, staffing agencies and franchisees.

“Employers are often encouraged to voluntarily sign on to codes of conduct that require them to oversee the workplace practices of subcontractors or suppliers,” Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s workforce freedom initiative, told Bloomberg BNA. “Under the Obama administration’s expanded definition of ‘joint employer,’ these sorts of agreements could expose a business to unexpected liability.”

On the other hand, CIW’s Asbed said, lately it’s often employers that come to the organization seeking to join the Fair Food Program.

“Our latest agreements—Wal-Mart, Fresh Market, Ahold—have come without campaigns at all, or with relatively little public pressure, because of a combination of the fact that the Fair Food Program is undeniably the best-in-class today in social responsibility, and because, for whatever their particular reason, each new participating buyer was looking to engage with a real social responsibility program when they came to us to join,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

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