“This is a first for the dairy industry anywhere in the world”


Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice, left, and Jostein Solheim, the chief executive of Ben & Jerry’s, right, in Burlington, Vt., on Tuesday October 3rd announcing an agreement to help farm workers. Photo and caption, Caleb Kenna for The New York Times


Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice: “It is a great victory and an honor for us dairy workers to expand [the Worker-driven Social Responsibility] model to the dairy industry of Vermont.”


CEO Jostein Solheim: “We really believe this is going to travel. This is going to travel across the nation.”’


Last week’s big announcement of the Milk with Dignity agreement between Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s — an agreement three years in the making — continues to make waves across the country as one of the most significant wins for worker’s rights in 2017--at a time when rights are under attack.  The news quickly caught the attention of major media outlets, from the New York Times to the AP to Vermont Public Radio and was also picked up in major media outlets throughout Latin America.  It also made its way onto the radar screen of some of Vermont’s great writers and bloggers, including Barry Estabrook (the award-winning food writer and author of the bestseller “Tomatoland” on the CIW’s struggle to reform the Florida tomato industry) and the local truth-teller on all things Vermont, vtdigger.org.  



First up, the New York Times (“Ben & Jerry’s Strikes Deal to Improve Migrant Dairy Workers’ Conditions”):

Mr. Solheim, the Ben & Jerry’s chief executive, in Burlington on Tuesday. “We believe in worker-led movements, and in bringing in dairy and doing it in Vermont,” he said. Photo and caption, Caleb Kenna for The New York Times


For years, Ben & Jerry’s took steps to make sure that its ice cream did not contain artificial growth hormone. The company also has a self-imposed fee on its greenhouse gas emissions.

What Ben & Jerry’s did not have was a reliable way of ensuring that the dairy farms supplying it with milk were providing humane conditions for their workers, a major issue in an industry where many people work seven days a week for less than minimum wage.

On Tuesday, the ice cream maker, which is based in Vermont, took a big step toward changing that, signing an agreement with a farmworkers’ group that establishes labor standards for the company’s suppliers in the state, and creates an enforcement strategy that encourages workers to speak up about violations.

“We love to be part of innovation,” said Jostein Solheim, the company’s chief executive. “We believe in worker-led movements, and in bringing in dairy and doing it in Vermont.”

The agreement borrows heavily from an arrangement called the Fair Food Program that was put in place in 2011 to address troubling conditions in Florida’s tomato industry.



Vermont Public Radio also ran an in-depth report on the signing ceremony, and picked up as well on the connection between the Milk with Dignity Program and the Fair Food Program (“Dairy Workers Reach Agreement With Ben & Jerry’s On Fair Wages, Working Conditions”):

Migrant Justice activists gather to celebrate the signing an agreement with Ben & Jerry’s that took two years to negotiate. Photo and caption, KATHLEEN MASTERSON / VPR


… Representatives from the Vermont farmworker advocacy group Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim came together Tuesday in front of Ben & Jerry’s Burlington ice cream shop to sign the agreement.

“This is the first expansion that we’ve seen from the model of worker-driven social responsibly that was pioneered by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the Florida tomato fields,” says Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice. “It is a great victory and an honor for us dairy workers to expand that model to the dairy industry of Vermont.”…

… Documents written by Migrant Justice say the Milk with Dignity program is based on a code of conduct drafted by the dairy workers themselves. Farmers who decide to join the Milk with Dignity program must commit to providing their workers with adequate breaks, time off, paid sick days, safe working conditions and fair housing.

“This will be the first step in bringing about a change where we will begin to be treated with a bit more respect and be given more rights,” says Olga Benitez, a Vermont dairy worker… (read more)



Barry Estabrook, writing for the food justice blog Civil Eats, delved even more deeply into the relationship between the FFP and the new dairy workers’ rights program (“Ben & Jerry’s Pledges to Protect Dairy Workers’ Rights”):

A worker milking cows in a Vermont dairy barn might seem to have little in common with one picking tomatoes in a Florida field. But effective this week, both enjoy the benefits of a system of labor protections that President Bill Clinton called “the most astonishing thing politically in the world we’re living in today.”

Jostein Solheim, chief executive of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, which was built on a platform of social responsibility, yesterday signed a “Milk with Dignity” agreement with representatives of the farmworkers’ rights group Migrant Justice. The signing occurred on a sunny afternoon on a table set up outside Ben & Jerry’s flagship store in Burlington, Vermont, where the company was founded and is still based. The agreement, which is based on the Fair Food Program put in place for tomato workers in Florida by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), came after three years of on-again, off-again negotiations. Those negotiations appeared to have stalled as recently as this past June.

“This is a first for the dairy industry anywhere in the world,” said Jostein. “Innovation is challenging, but if we get this right, it’s a win, win, win for workers, farmers, and buyers.” Currently, the company buys milk from about 80 Vermont dairies, and plans to source every drop from Milk with Dignity farms in the coming years…

… At the signing ceremony, Enrique Balcazar, a dairy worker and Migrant Justice organizer, proclaimed, “This is a new day for dairy, a new day for the human rights of farmworkers. But this is just one step. We are committing to keep pushing forward.”

In pushing forward, the group will be following in the steps of the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Over the past six years, Fair Food has brought about dramatic improvements in the Florida tomato industry, an industry that was once rife with wage theft, sexual harassment, and regular instances of outright slavery.

“This is a huge leap for Vermont dairy workers and for the dairy industry as a whole,” said CIW’s Greg Asbed, who was instrumental in establishing the Fair Food Program. “They will benefit—as the tomato industry has—by giving workers a voice, identifying bad practices and bad actors, and eliminating risks that make life difficult for everyone involved—from workers to farmers to buyers. The improvements will almost certainly drive Milk with Dignity’s expansion into the rest of the Northeastern dairy industry in the years ahead.”


The Associated Press story, which ran in scores of outlets around the country, focused on the mutually beneficial nature of the Milk with Dignity Program.  Here’s an excerpt from the AP story printed in US News & World Report (“Ben & Jerry’s Agrees to Improve Conditions for Farmworkers”):

A dairy worker tends to cow on a Fairfield, VT, farm. Photo Associated Press


… The “Milk with Dignity” agreement was signed by Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim and members of the group Migrant Justice. It assures the human rights of the workers and ensures better relations with farmers because workers will do a better job, said Enrique “Kike” Balcazar, a 24-year-old farmworker from Tabasco, Mexico, who has worked in Vermont for seven years and is now a leader of Migrant Justice.

“And Ben & Jerry’s wins … because they will sell a product that assures the human rights of the workers so the consumers will receive a just product. That is milk with dignity,” Balcazar said.

Solheim said the agreement is the first of its kind in the dairy industry in the United States and possibly the world.

“It’s an agreement that puts the worker in charge of workers’ rights,” he said. “It’s a worker-led movement, but it’s a very clever system. It’s a system that really does create a win, win, win.” (read more)



Finally, leave it to Vermont’s own vtdigger.org to get to the root of what will change for workers as a result of the new agreement (“Ben & Jerry’s signs ‘Milk with Dignity’ pact with migrant workers”):

Migrant Justice leader Enrique Balcazar is the first to sign the agreement. Photo and caption by Kelsey Neubauer/VTDigger


Vermont migrant workers filled Church Street with the sound of cheers Tuesday as Jostein Solheim, the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s signed a legally binding agreement, nearly three years in the making, to improve dairy farm standards in Vermont.

The so-called “Milk with Dignity” agreement requires dairy farm suppliers to provide workers with higher wages, time off and better housing…

… The program aims to open communication between farmers and farm workers with assistance from the corporation when needed, Solheim said.

“This is a program that will give workers a seat at the table, it will provide dignity and a real voice,” Solheim said. “It also gives the farmer a committed team, and a premium to support them when they need it.


Join Vermont dairy workers in making history. Help us operationalize and expand the Milk with Dignity Program by donating to Migrant Justice today.