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How Milk with Dignity got a historic agreement

Enrique "Kike" Balcazar interviewed by Owen La Farge - Socialist Worker, October 19, 2011

WHAT WERE the most important victories that came with the signing of the Milk with Dignity agreement Ben & Jerry's?

FOR MANY years, the priority of dairy workers here in Vermont has been to improve working and living conditions on the farms. We had to build our way up to winning this agreement. First, we organized to secure things like drivers licenses for immigrants in Vermont and stopping the collaboration of police with immigration authorities.

In 2014, we started to speak with Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream about how they could behave more responsibility and lead the way in improving working conditions. The workers designed a program called "Milk with Dignity."

The program was created and led by dairy workers in Vermont. It has five essential elements, including a code of conduct that sets out standards that establish respect and dignity for workers in the areas of decent wages, hours of work, health and safety, and dignified housing.

AND ALL of this is included in the agreement that Ben & Jerry's signed?

YES. IN addition to the code of conduct, the program establishes a plan to educate workers when they start so they can learn about their rights and how to defend them.

Another important element of Milk with Dignity is that an independent third party will interview the workers and oversee the execution of the program. Farmworkers will also be able to call a 24/7 hotline to make complaints and to improve communication inside the dairy farms.

WHY DID Ben & Jerry's sign the agreement two years after initially saying that they supported the agreement?

WE ORGANIZED well, and we defined what we wanted clearly, and we knew that Milk with Dignity represented a new day for the workers. So we never stopped organizing, and with the support of students, faith groups, sister organizations, consumers and workers, we pushed Ben & Jerry's to sign the deal.

Ben & Jerry's has taken steps towards social responsibility in areas such as the environment and animal rights. So I believe Ben & Jerry's understood it was time to do right by the workers.

WHY IS this an important victory for dairy workers in general and for immigrant workers?

IT'S VERY important because immigrant workers are organizing in a larger political context in which we are discriminated against, persecuted, deported--many bad things are happening to the immigrant community. This new president and his administration have brought fear to the community, and what Donald Trump wants is for immigrants not to have a voice, to stop organizing, and to return to the shadows.

We have realized that to defend our rights, we have to organize ourselves, and we worry that the farmers and companies may try to use the climate created by the new administration to take advantage of the immigrant community and exploit immigrant workers more.

Until this victory, there was no existing program in the dairy industry created by workers that brought real change. We will not stop struggling now. We have won a victory, but now, especially with this administration, it is even more important to demonstrate that we are not afraid. Because if we don't, there will be more violations of our rights.

WHAT ARE the next steps for the Migrant Justice organization and immigrant dairy workers in Vermont? Is it a union? A specific campaign?

MIGRANT JUSTICE is made up of dairy farmworkers in order to develop leadership and amplify the voice of the community. But as dairy workers, we are excluded from union membership--we do not have this right. But workers still find a voice to fight for their rights through Migrant Justice.

So right now, we are celebrating this historic victory and the new day we have established for workers in the Vermont dairy industry. And we will work hard to implement this program with Ben & Jerry's throughout their supply chain.

We will also continue with our regional assemblies and with visits to the farms to determine what is the next step. Ben & Jerry's is only one part of the industry here. An important part, yes, but in the future, we want all of the dairy farms in Vermont to be part of the "Milk with Dignity" consortium. So we want to continue to expand, but what company or place we go to next will be determined by the workers.

WHAT role did the ICE and Border Patrol targeted arrests, abductions and even deportations of Migrant Justice leaders, including yourself, play during the campaign? What was their purpose, and how did it affect your organizing?

I WAS arrested in March with Zully, and since last year, many leaders of Migrant Justice have been detained. So while the new administration is trying to instill fear in the immigrant community, we have demonstrated that we have a very strong community.

We won a big victory when we organized campaigns to free Victor, Zully, Miguel, Esau, Yesenia and myself. These victories gave us the strength to say that we are going to continue to organize.

HOW DO you see this victory in relation to wider immigrant struggles and other struggles under the Trump administration?

WE WANT to be an inspiration to immigrants and all workers--to declare, like our slogan, "Sí se puede!" ("Yes we can!). I believe that Migrant Justice has demonstrated that although we are in a terrible political context, we can still win victories.

The workers themselves can raise their voices, but we also need the support of all of the community in order to win. We are confident that in other industries like fishing, blueberries and other dairy supply chains in New York and Pennsylvania, we can expand the model we have been using.

WHAT IS the inspiration for you as an activist and leader?

I WAS a dairy worker for three years. It was hard to work so many hours, even in the bitter cold, and come home to shoddy housing. But the support we received from communities throughout Vermont has been beautiful.

We have also been inspired by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, which has won 14 agreements with different corporations. It's an inspiration for me to go to Florida and for them to come here. We have exchanges to strategize about next steps.

WHAT OTHER concrete gains in living and working conditions were won with the agreement?

MIGRANT JUSTICE carried out a survey in 2014 among 200 workers, and one of the most difficult challenges was that workers didn't receive Vermont's minimum wage. Forty percent of the workers surveyed never received any days off. Under the Milk with Dignity program, one big change is that workers will have the right to a day off every week.

Also, a dairy farm is a very dangerous place to work. You work with large animals, tractors, chemicals--so under the program we will have more education about workplace safety in the worker's own language.

Companies and farmers have fired workers simply for demanding their rights, such as a day of rest or a raise or better housing. But the new program has created an enforcement mechanism to stop these things from happening.

Ben & Jerry's can play a big role here by using its power to say that these things can't happen. The raises that workers will receive under the program will also bring a big change. The economic redistribution in favor of the farmworkers in the supply chain is a big deal.

In terms of housing, workers are going to have basic rights like clean water, electricity, heaters--which is very important during the harsh Vermont winters. Through the survey, we learned that there were workers who didn't have heat. But now they will have that right. And we established the right to live in housing without infestations of cockroaches and mice, which is unfortunately common on dairy farms.

WHAT LESSONS can union activists, organizers and others learn from this victory?

ONE LESSON is that we must empower the workers to tell their own stories about what's happening in their workplaces and in their living situations. The most important point is that the workers should define for themselves what they want. If the workers say, "I want dignified housing," then we have to define what that looks like and go out and fight for it.

Another lesson is to continue the struggle even during tough times. It was difficult for the campaign to not advance for two years, but we knew we had to continue to fight. We tried different tactics. And finally we won.

This is the first agreement of its kind in the dairy industry. Ben & Jerry's has about 85 farms in Vermont and a few in New York, but 90 percent are in Vermont. But in Vermont, they are about 800 farms. So we are going to continue to organize and to tell our stories until all the farms sign up with the Milk with Dignity program.

We may be in a difficult moment politically, but we should continue to organize ourselves and not be afraid. We can never return to the shadows. This is not an option.

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