Dairy Workers Reach Agreement With Ben & Jerry's On Fair Wages, Working Conditions

Oct 3, 2017

Ben & Jerry's and Vermont dairy farmworkers have come to an agreement on a program they say will ensure "just and dignified working conditions" on the Vermont farms that supply milk for the ice cream company.

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." 

Migrant Justice has been negotiating with the ice cream company for two years to create this worker-led initiative. The organization plans to begin immediately recruiting dairy farmers who supply Ben & Jerry's to join the the Milk with Dignity program, with a goal of eventually sourcing all of the ice cream company's milk through the program.

Both negotiation parties decided to keep the final agreement private. However Solheim says as part of the initiative Ben & Jerry's has committed to paying dairy farmers who join Milk with Dignity a higher price to support wages and safe working conditions. 

"There is a dedicated premium for Milk with Dignity, and dedicated  pass-through for worker, to incentivize them also participating in this," says Solheim. 

Ben & Jerry's CEO Jostein Solheim signs a poster board replica of the agreement, and cheers as Migrant Justice organizers come forward to sign the board.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Solheim says in addition the program involves educating dairy farm workers of their rights and the pathways to file complaints, which will be done by Migrant Justice. 

He says an independent non-profit called the Milk with Dignity Standards Council will work with farmers and dairy workers to make sure all are in compliance with the labor standards outlined in the agreement. Ben & Jerry's currently receives milk from 85 Vermont dairy farms, many of which are part of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery. 

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.

Olga Benitez expressed extreme gratitude that Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry's finally negotiated an agreement to protect workers' rights and pay fair wages.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

"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, "because in this country we know it's difficult for our rights to be respected."

She says they began negotiations over two years ago, and it's hard to believe both parties now have an agreement that's ready to be signed.

The crowd shouted "Si se puede" as dairy workers and Migrant Justice representatives stepped up to sign a poster board representation of the agreement.

Shortly after, Ben & Jerry's Jostein Solheim and Migrant Justice Enrique Balcazar signed the binding agreement. 

Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice signed the long-awaited agreement with Ben & Jerry's on Tuesday in front of the ice cream shop on Church St. in Burlington.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR