Yesterday morning, Burger King’s Senior Analyst of Communications, Denise Wilson, sent me an e-mail saying that the company had “terminated two employees who participated in unauthorized activity on public Web sites which did not reflect the company’s views and which were in violation of company policy and its ‘Code of Business Ethics and Conduct.'” The statement also said, “The company has discontinued the services provided by Diplomatic Tactical Services, Inc. (DTS) for violation of the company’s code of conduct.” CEO John Chidsey claimed, “Neither I nor any of my senior management team were aware of or condone the unauthorized activities in question.”
The statement raised as many questions as it answered, such as which two employees were fired? “We do not comment on personnel matters,” Wilson replied. (Shortly thereafter, the dismissed employees were identified by Amy Bennett Williams of the Fort Myers News-Press as vice president Steven Grover and spokesman Keva Silversmith.)
What did DTS do that was a “violation of the company’s code of conduct”? “DTS is no longer a vendor due to its violation of BKC’s code of conduct,” Wilson wrote back.
Steve Grover is a Vice President and was the point-person in all of the talks with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) regarding these labor issues. He was linked to the web postings – so how is it that no one on the senior management team knew about the “unauthorized activities”? “Steve Grover, although he is a vice president, is not considered part of senior management,” Wilson said.
Alright. Well, how was it that Burger King employees – outside the knowledge of the CEO and his senior management team – were able to issue orders to DTS, including the infiltration of the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA)? Pay DTS for these services, etc.? “Senior management did not request and had no knowledge of the reported improper DTS activities related to meetings of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) or Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA),” Wilson insisted.
But here’s the kicker. Mr. Chidsey’s comments in October at Davidson College are strikingly similar to the comments on the web that BKC now says “do not reflect the company’s views” and have led to the two firings. These false statements included: “The union said the money has to go in the union coffers and ‘we’ll decide what’s better for the workers.'” If this doesn’t reflect the views of the company, shouldn’t Mr. Chidsey make a public apology for those comments at the very least? How can some BKC employees be “terminated” for echoing the public comments of their CEO, while the CEO himself just moves on without any acknowledgment or penalty for his own error or culpability in setting this tone?
“We do not have a record of Mr. Chidsey making these statements on file,” Wilson wrote me.
So, I provided her the record (and now you have the record too – here and here– the latter is a video requiring Real Player and the “union” comment begins just after 20 minutes.) When the school’s newspaper, The Davidsonian, ran an article calling for Chidsey to retract his statements, Chidsey wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I stand behind all the comments I made in answering the questions regarding the CIW and farm workers and invite anyone who doubts our integrity to be in touch with me directly.”
Well, I took him up on his offer and, so far, I’ve not been scheduled for an interview.
But I did receive this reply from Wilson today: “We just had the opportunity to view the complete video…. Mr. Chidsey said that we would take the ‘penny per pound’ equivalent which is approximately $300,000 and put it towards housing, schools and scholarships that would assist the tomato pickers directly. And the response we received from the CIW was no. His quote of ‘no way, no how, the money has to go in the union coffers and we’ll decide what’s better for the workers’ was Mr. Chidsey paraphrasing the CIW response.”
Seriously – that was paraphrasing? Well, it was that same “paraphrasing” to the media – accusing CIW of taking money from the penny-per-pound deal, CIW wanting a “secret deal,” and demanding a check signed to them – that caused the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kilpatrick, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which was closely involved in the Yum Brands (owners of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and other chains) and McDonald’s negotiations, to write Burger King saying, “We are troubled that you have seen fit to try to damage the credibility and reputation of the CIW, an organization that has a proven record of integrity and good working relationships with other corporations.” Both Yum and the Carter Center wrote similar letters in an effort to set the record straight.
Not long after Chidsey’s “paraphrasing” at Davidson, the comments ceased in the media. But they started appearing with more frequency online – until those too were linked to Burger King, as was the use of Diplomatic Tactical Services to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance.
Wilson closed her e-mail today, writing, “We have a meeting scheduled with the CIW this week and are committed to finding practical, tangible ways to help ensure decent wages and working conditions for all the tomato harvesters in Immokalee.”
I couldn’t confirm this meeting, but let’s hope it’s true. Certainly there are some Senators who want to see Burger King act in good faith here – and quickly. Senator Richard Durbin released a statement saying, “I am happy Burger King admitted the unethical misconduct of its workers and contractors against non-violent groups like the Student/Farmwork Alliance and CIW. But the only way to end this honorably is for BK to act immediately to pay a penny a pound increase to these exploited tomato workers in Florida.”
And Senator Bernie Sanders released this statement: “A major corporation like Burger King should not have a vice president posting inflammatory anti-worker messages on the Web, nor should it be hiring spies to infiltrate non-violent, pro-worker organizations like the Student/Farmworker Alliance or Coalition of Immokalee Workers…. I’m delighted that the corporation has fired those people involved in those despicable actions, but we should make sure that we find out how high up the corporate ladder this scheme went. Now is the time for Burger King to join other fast-food corporations, like McDonald’s and Yum Brands, and support a penny-a-pound increase for the tomato workers in Florida, perhaps the most exploited workers in the United States today.”
So it seems that Senator Sanders is committed not only to the pressing issue of farmworker poverty, but also finding out who knew about the spying, and the online smear campaign against CIW and the SFA.
But, hey, I’m just paraphrasing.
With reporting by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.