GAINESVILLE, FL—Earlier this month, students at the University of Florida returned from spring break to record-low temperatures and a tauntingly blue sky. On March 16, the rolling green lawn that joins several of the university’s main buildings was filled with students enjoying the weather in warm patches of sun.
About two miles east, representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker-rights organization based five hours south of Gainesville, gathered with UF students at Norman Field, an expanse of grass near the area of town where Wendy Thomas, the original Wendy on whom the fast food chain’s logo is based, lived when she attended the university in the early 1980s. With tomato signs and CIW’s signature yellow flags, students and coalition members were gathered for a protest.
The sound of guitars and chants of “Move Wendy’s, get out the way!” soon could be heard as the protestors made their way through campus. People paused their frisbeeing or studying to locate the source of the noise as the mass of students traveled south toward the student union, home to one of two Wendy’s locations on campus.
Three years ago, students across the country launched the “Boot the Braids” campaign to pressure Wendy’s into joining the CIW’s Fair Food Program. The CIW has organized to improve working conditions for farmworkers since 1993, and its Fair Food Program (FFP) is a first-of-its-kind model that does just that. The FFP launched in 2011 and originally focused on tomatoes grown in Florida where tomato farm owners and crew leaders were notoriously abusive to farmworkers, and wages were shockingly low. The CIW used public pressure and protests to get major retailers, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Subway, to agree to only purchase Florida tomatoes from growers who participate in the FFP. They also agreed to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes, which would go directly to farmworkers. Florida growers who want to sell to retailers participating in the FFP in turn have to sign on to a farmworker-drafted code of conduct and consent to third-party audits of their working conditions. Since its inception, the program has improved working conditions and resulted in more than $23 million in increased wages. The FFP has since expanded to include tomatoes grown in six other states, and now also includes Florida-grown strawberries and peppers.
Wendy’s has resisted joining the program from the beginning. After years of protests, hunger strikes, boycotts, and petitions, each of the top five fast food companies have signed on to the FFP except for Wendy’s. In response, the CIW launched a national boycott of the chain in March 2016. As for the student activists, they say their Boot the Braids campaign won’t stop until Wendy’s joins the FFP or is removed from their college campuses.