Wendy's protest

Activists picket Wendy's on State Street Tuesday to call for a boycott for the chain's refusal to sign onto a farm labor code of conduct. 

The little girl in pigtails looked down on an unfriendly crowd Tuesday as lunch traffic at the State Street Wendy's hamburger joint in downtown Madison was hampered by a picket line.

Organized by a group of Florida activists, the protesters were part of a nationwide boycott movement for the Wendy’s chain, which has refused to sign onto a code of conduct for the labor that supplies its produce, an agreement that other fast-food chains have adopted.

“What we want them to do first is to commit to paying a penny more per pound for tomatoes to raise wages that have been stagnant for farm workers,” said Florida tomato picker Lupe Gonzalo. “And second, to commit to a human rights code of conduct in which workers have access to shade, water, clean bathrooms.”

About three dozen protesters gathered in front of Wendy's at noon to protest the chain's refusal to participate in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program. So far 14 retailers and fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell and Burger King, have signed on.

“Wendy’s is the only major fast-food corporation that’s still not participating,” said Patricia Cipollitti, an Alliance for Fair Food organizer.

The pact provides a framework for better wages, better working conditions and an end to abuses like sexual harassment and forced labor.

"Instead of joining the Fair Food Program, they’ve shifted their purchases to Mexico, where workers’ rights are not respected,” Cipollitti said.

The coalition is on a two-week, 12-city national tour, which will wind up this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, the site of Wendy’s headquarters.

“Allies from across the country are mobilizing to converge for a weekend of action,” Cipollitti said.

Protests include a hunger strike by Ohio State University students, who are protesting the university’s contract with Wendy’s.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based in Immokalee, Florida, has been credited with improving bad farm worker conditions in Florida, a major provider of the U.S. tomato supply.

Rather than join the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s issued its own corporate social-responsibility code, which protesters say rings hollow.

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“That code of conduct has no worker participation or enforcement mechanisms,” said Gonzalo. “For us, if a code of conduct doesn’t have workers’ voices in it, it’s useless.”

While Tuesday’s protest was organized by the out-of-state group, the picket line was made up mostly of locals.

“I think that Wendy’s should follow the other fast-food chains that have decided that it’s worth it for social justice to pay a penny or two more per pound of tomatoes to pay the farm workers who harvest the tomatoes a fair wage,” said local activist Janet Parker.

Richard Miller said for him the issue resonates personally. Both his parents were farmers and his father brought in extra money as a picker.

“I understand the long, hard hours that they put in, the conditions that they work under and the lack of respect that they normally get,” he said.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.