Donate to power another year of farmworker-led human rights victories
Posted Mon, 11/28/2022 - 4:01pm
In October, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Milk with Dignity program. Five years have passed since we declared, at the historic signing of the first Milk with Dignity agreement, a “new day for human rights in the dairy industry.” And in those years, our achievements have surpassed the dreams of the farmworkers who conceived of and built Milk with Dignity.
The program has won unprecedented improvements in labor and housing conditions for hundreds of dairy workers and has secured protections for a workforce previously bereft of enforceable rights. Milk with Dignity has invested over $3.4 million in farmworker pay and benefits, and the worker-driven program has transformed the nature of work on dairy farms.
Marcela has worked on the same dairy farm over the past fifteen years, ten before Milk with Dignity’s arrival and five after. She reflects on the transformations:
“Once my farm joined Milk with Dignity, the boss became more concerned about us, about our well-being. He’s more tolerant now. Instead of scolding us when something goes wrong, he communicates patiently. There have been times in the past when I’ve suffered discrimination because I am a woman. But we have a voice now and we feel secure. We can work with dignity because we know we have the program’s support.”
This change has not come easily; it is only made possible through the courageous leadership and persistent dedication of farmworkers themselves. For years, workers on Anthony’s farm had experienced inhumane housing, sub-minimum wages, and retaliation against those who spoke out. When the farm entered Milk with Dignity, initially little changed; but after the farm was suspended for non-compliance, it began making the necessary improvements and was able to return to the program. The most abusive manager left the farm, and the workers – who the manager had threatened with retaliation – remained.
One of the most important changes came through the construction of new housing. Anthony went from sharing a cramped room in the barn with two other workers, to living comfortably in new, quality housing. “Nobody should have to live in a barn,” he said. “It goes against our human rights.”
Despite these incredible achievements, our work is far from done. Milk with Dignity is protecting the rights of hundreds of farmworkers, but many others are still left out. That’s why we are fighting hard to expose abuses on farms outside the program and push companies to do the right thing, starting with grocery chain Hannaford Supermarket.
Over the past year, farmworkers have turned up the heat on Hannaford, pressuring the company to take responsibility for conditions in its supply chain. Workers and consumers organized simultaneous actions at 30 stores in May, traveled twice to the company headquarters in Maine to bring the fight directly to Hannaford’s doorstep, and most recently led weekly pickets outside stores. We have built a support network of allies around the region to “adopt” their local Hannafords and hold regular actions. And we worked with the Pride Center of Vermont to reject Hannaford’s sponsorship of the Vermont Pride Parade due to the corporation’s unwillingness to meet with farmworkers. This powerful act of solidarity culminated in farmworkers leading this year’s Pride Parade with the Migrant Justice banner.
Ervin, who lives on a Milk with Dignity farm with his wife and daughter, spoke about his hopes for the future:
“We are achieving great things: dignified housing, a living wage, improvements in all areas of work. My message to dairy companies is that they pay attention to what’s happening here and join the program. If you do, there will be many more farms under Milk with Dignity and many more workers who get the benefits that we have now. We will see the fruits of the seeds we have planted today.”
While farmworkers fight to secure labor and housing rights through Milk with Dignity, we are also advancing civil rights for immigrants from our base in Vermont. Despite our groundbreaking legal victory over ICE in 2020 to stop the agency’s targeting of Migrant Justice, many farmworkers remain at risk of detention and deportation. This year, we successfully passed a bill protecting people from immigration arrest at and around Vermont courthouses. We have continued to advance policies stopping police discrimination against immigrants and have held departments accountable when they collaborate with ICE. And we are fighting to stop the deportations of many community members swept up by ICE and Border Patrol in recent years.
Immigrant farmworkers are leading this fight for human rights and economic justice but cannot do it alone. Our movement is propelled by the thousands of supporters who have contributed time, energy, and money.