Farm workers demand 'Milk with dignity' from left wing Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream
Oh, sweet irony. Dozens of farm workers marched from the state capital of Montpelier, Vermont to a Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream factory outside of Waterbury demanding that the left wing "values-led business" negotiate for better wages and participation in the "Milk with Dignity" program.
The founders and original owners of the company, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, sold the company in 2000 to Unilever and are no longer involved in the day to day management of the business. But the multi-national corporation promised to carry on the tradition of socially conscious policies - a promise they have had a hard time keeping in a world where what's necessarily good for the business isn't good for the consumer or workers.
"We can't wait any more. We are going to pressure them and see what happens," said Victor Diaz, a Mexican immigrant now working on a farm in Vergennes.
Ben & Jerry's spokesman Sean Greenwood said before Saturday's march from the Statehouse to the Waterbury factory that the company was eager to reach an agreement and negotiations were underway.
"We are a values-led business. We frame ourselves as an aspiring social justice company," said Greenwood. "We try to do good with everything we can with our business. Dairy has definitely been one of those issues we have done a ton of work on for decades."
Ben & Jerry's touts its social activism as much as its quirky ice-cream flavors such as Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey and Phish Food. Many of its raw materials, like sugar, cocoa, vanilla, bananas and coffee come from producers across the world that subscribe to the Fairtrade program, which promotes higher prices and better working conditions for farmers.
About 85 percent of the milk Ben & Jerry's uses in its ice cream made in North America comes from about 80 Vermont dairy farms. Its Caring Dairy program promotes sustainable farming by offering farmers cash incentives for keeping up with best management practices.
The Milk with Dignity program was developed in 2014 by farm workers and the Vermont group Migrant Justice to ensure that farms provide them fair wages and working conditions and decent housing. In 2015, Ben & Jerry's agreed to join the program. Since then, the two sides have been negotiating over the details.
"We've been negotiating in good faith," said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice. "It's an unacceptable delay."
Greenwood said Ben & Jerry's didn't get the first details from the workers until a year ago and the two sides have been working since then to reach an agreement.
"It has to work for the farmers, the farm owners, and it has to work for the businesses involved and that's the complex piece," Greenwood said. "How do you make sure that it will be operationalized so it's a win-win across the board and that's what we've been working on for well over a year now."
Ben and Jerry's can carry on all the social experimentation they wish. As long as they make money for Unilever and their shareholders, there shouldn't be any complaints from free market supporters.
Indeed, the company has almost always made money They sell their products at a premium price and have been building their unique brand since their founding in 1978. But they have always had a "holier than thou" business personae that grates. While claiming to be consumer-conscious, their pricey confections have become a symbol of left wing elitism. So this demonstration by humble farm workers sort of takes the sheen off their socially conscious reputation.
And that's a good thing. A business that pretends to be more than what it is - a vehicle to bring a desired product to the consumer - is an invitation to being charged with hypocrisy when they are exposed as not quite the knight in shining armor they purport to be.