More than 120 people, including several Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) staff, took up banners and pickets this week, as they made their way across the University of Louisville campus. It was part of a campaign to convince the Wendy’s fast food chain that its current practices of buying tomatoes is negatively impacting the lives and rights of farmworkers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is in the midst of its Workers’ Voices Tour, visiting five cities from New York to Florida. It urges the public to boycott Wendy’s until it signs on to the Fair Food Program (FFP) a partnership between farmworkers, Florida tomato growers and more than a dozen major food retailers. The FFP calls for a zero-tolerance policy for slavery and sexual harassment and for retailers to pay a “penny-per-pound” premium which goes directly to the workers.

Four of the five major fast food chains have signed on to the agreement with Wendy’s as the lone holdout. Corporate leaders argue they buy their tomatoes from Mexico and are not bound to sign the agreement. The CIW argues that farmworkers need to be protected regardless of where the tomatoes are grown.

Kelsey Voit, president of the Cardinal Student Farmworker Alliance at the University of Louisville, organized the group after watching the documentary “Food Chains” last year. The film documents the CIW’s struggle to secure stronger rights and more pay for farmworkers in the south.

“We started the alliance as a result of the documentary. I’m hoping other students will see what we’re doing and support our efforts to boycott Wendy’s,” she said. “We’re also hoping the public will see what’s going on and support the CIW in its efforts to raise awareness.”

Voit connected with Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns with the Presbyterian Hunger Program to help the CIW organize the Louisville leg of the five-city tour.

“The farmworkers have been inspiring. To have a group that has been so exploited and is one of the poorest paid workforces in the country to take time and organize this campaign for 20 years is impressive,” said Kang Bartlett. “It’s a blessing to be a part of an organization like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that is able to partner and accompany this group through its struggles over the years.”

Ruth Farrell, coordinator for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, was among those walking this week. She said young people understand justice activism, and sees student movements across the U.S. increasingly recognize their power.

“Big businesses like Wendy’s have long seen [young people] as a powerful bloc of customers with years of buying potential,” said Farrell. “As a church, nothing is more exciting than joining with student movements in our work to end poverty and injustice. Too often we become complacent and begin to think God’s vision for economic and political justice is not realistic. Young people and the CIW remind us that our human-created economic and political reality can be changed.”

Among the demonstrators was Lupe Gonzalo, who has been picking tomatoes for more than 16 years. She says the Fair Food Program has “truly changed the lives” of farmworkers, especially women who have had to deal with sexual harassment every day in the fields.

“Before the agreement, we were not able to report sexual assault because we would be dismissed from the company. But now we can report it without fear, knowing there will be an investigation and a solution,” she said. “It’s a different life now. We come home, hug our children and know that we have worked with dignity, thanks to the Fair Food Program.”

The march ended at the Wendy’s on campus, where CIW leaders asked to meet with store management, but were refused.

Presbyterian Mission Agency Interim Executive Director Tony De La Rosa speaks to CIW members at a luncheon hosted by the Presbyterian Hunger Program in Louisville.

Presbyterian Mission Agency Interim Executive Director Tony De La Rosa speaks to CIW members at a luncheon hosted by the Presbyterian Hunger Program in Louisville. —Rick Jones

The Louisville tour ended on Wednesday with the Presbyterian Mission Agency hosting a luncheon for the workers as they prepare to head south for the final stops on their campaign. Several church leaders addressed the group including Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and PMA Interim Executive Director Tony De La Rosa.

“You have made us a better church by asking us to join this great cause,” Parsons said. “Sometimes you have to make some noise and make people uncomfortable, but we will stand with you until every worker is treated with the dignity they deserve.”

“As a fellow Latino, I would not be in this position if it were not for your work for justice,” said De La Rosa, thanking CIW for opening doors for so many. “Our church is changing every day and that change is happening because you are advocating justice for the workers in the fields, cities and throughout our country.”

Several Louisville area churches also assisted with the campaign visit this week including; Highland, Harvey Brown, Central, Crescent Hill and Fourth Presbyterian Churches.

From Louisville, the campaign heads to Nashville and then to Florida with stops in Gainesville and Palm Beach, the home of Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz.