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Dairy Workers Protest At Ben & Jerry's Free Cone Day In Call For Better Labor Conditions

Kathleen Masterson
Migrant Justice activist Enrique Balcazar, who was recently arrested by ICE agents and then released on bail, held a sign at a protest in Burlington Tuesday calling on Ben and Jerry's to agree to a "Milk with Dignity" plan currently in the works.

Migrant Justice advocates staged a protest alongside the Ben & Jerry's "Free Cone Day" line in downtown Burlington Tuesday, demanding better working conditions for dairy farmworkers.

"Today your ice cream is free, but farmworkers are not," read one set of signs that dairy farmworkers and volunteers alike held aloft.

The protesters are aiming to pressure Ben & Jerry's to agree to the "Milk with Dignity" plan that Migrant Justice and Ben and Jerry's representatives have been negotiating for nearly two years. The details of this plan have not been revealed to the public because both parties signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Two protesters crouched under a hand-made cow costume, while activist Abel Luna acted out the exhausting work of milking cows 24 hours a day. About 20 protesters with signs chanted phrases like "Leche justa, a mi me gusta," which roughly translates to "Milk with justice, I like it."

Migrant Justice activists Enrique Balcazar and Zully Palacios, who were recently arrested by ICE agents and then released on bail, held signs in the protest brigade. Balcazar spoke to the crowd in Spanish, which was then translated to English by Will Lambek, an organizer with Migrant Justice, saying that a Migrant Justice survey found 40 percent of Vermont dairy workers are paid below minimum wage. 

"We want people getting their free cones today to understand that average worker on a Ben & Jerry's farm is working 60 to 80 hours per week — many for below minimum wage," says Lambek. "People are working without breaks for food or bathroom, oftentimes not sleeping eight hours in a day."

A representative from Ben & Jerry's says the company is committed to developing fair labor standards for dairy workers.

"Migrant Justice has a worker-led design program. And this is part of a whole new movement of worker-led social responsibility, which we think is an important movement, so we want to support that," says Rob Michalak of Ben & Jerry's. "Just for us right now, it's matter of working out the details."

Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR
Abel Luna leads a 'cow' as protesters chant for 'Milk with Dignity' in front of the Ben & Jerry's Free Cone Day line.

Michalak says the idea is that once the ice cream company and Migrant Justice reach an agreement, those new labor standards would replace the current standards outlined in the Caring Dairy program. That's an existing Ben & Jerry's program in which 85 Vermont farmers currently participate; the farms get paid a premium for their milk if they pay their dairy workers minimum wage and meet other labor standards.

Migrant Justice leaders say the Caring Dairy standards don't go far enough to protect workers rights and ensure fair workplace conditions. Lambek says it doesn't include a worker-authored code of conduct or education for workers on what their rights are under the program.

He says Milk with Dignity also calls for an "independent enforcement mechanism with market consequences, so if farms aren't meeting the code of conduct, and they aren't willing to bring their farms up to code, they would then loose their market."

Lambek says Migrant Justice also is requesting that farmers who meet the Milk With Dignity standards be paid a higher premium, above the Caring Dairy amount, to support farmers who are struggling economically.

On Church Street in downtown Burlington, the line for free ice cream cones stretches down nearly the length of the block, and folks in line watch with casual interest as the protest unfolds alongside them.

The protesters watched as Balcazar handed the Ben & Jerry's manager a letter outlining the dairy farmworkers' requests, and Balcazar asked that it be delivered to the company's CEO. The two shook hands and the manager assured him he would see to it.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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