On a windy afternoon in March 2017, protesters singing civil rights songs circled the steps of the Vermont state capitol. It was a classic Vermont rally. There were white-haired activists; Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim clergy; young adults; and children carrying signs that said: “We All Belong Here. We Will Defend Each Other.”
At the center was a small group of dairy workers from remote mountain villages in southern Mexico. They sang songs, then chanted: “¡Ni una más! Not one more deportation!”
This was the third demonstration in four days to protest the arrest of three Vermont farmworker-activists – Enrique “Kike” Balcazar, Victoria “Zully” Palacios and Alex Carrillo-Sanchez. Detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), the three faced deportation, swept up in a nationwide crackdown ordered by President Trump.
Even before Trump’s election, farmworker organizers had been targeted and deported for years.
“We are Mexicans and immigration is always chasing us,” said Vermont dairy activist Maribel Lopes. She was arrested by Ice when she left her workplace to buy diapers for her baby.
“If it weren’t for migrant workers, our dairy products and everything else would go up higher to the point where we couldn’t afford it. So I say, let them do what they came here to do, which is to support their families,” Lyle Deida, Carrillo-Sanchez’s father-in-law, told the rally.
Carrillo-Sanchez, Balcazar, and Palacios are all activists with Migrant Justice, an organization that promotes “worker-led social responsibility” on Vermont dairy farms.
Last year, the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, awarded Migrant Justice the Cesar Chavez human and civil rights award. They have won the John Brown Freedom award. Senator Bernie Sanders hailed them as “human rights defenders”. Twenty-four-year-old Balcazar has been described as “the face of undocumented labor in Vermont”.
And that’s the problem – Migrant Justice activists are intentionally visible.
Balcazar moved to Vermont at 16 to find work. He considers it home. Asked by local news media if he feared deportation, he replied:
“I’m not scared at all. We’ve been here as a community fighting for our rights to live free and dignified lives and we aren’t going back in the shadows.”
When Vermont Ice let it be known that they planned to arrest and deport Balcazar, allies offered him sanctuary in their homes. He graciously refused.
Balcazar was tired of hiding. Just 19 when he became active in Migrant Justice, he felt trapped on the farm where he worked 78-hour weeks. The brutal schedule exhausted him. So did the stress of dodging immigration police.
Until 2013, undocumented Vermonters could not get driver’s licenses. Farmers would drive their workers to shop. In rural Vermont, one of the country’s whitest regions, vans of Mexicans were easy pickings for Ice.
Migrant Justice led successful campaigns to ban racial profiling by state police and to enable undocumented Vermonters to get driver’s licenses. But that victory came back to bite them.
Some department of motor vehicles (DMV) employees decided to send Ice copies of license applications “with south-of-the-border names”. Though against state law, the practice continued unrestrained.
“We’re going to have to make you an honorary Ice officer,” an immigration agent wrote to one DMV employee.
The ACLU won a $40,000 settlement and DMV employees were warned by the state to stop the practice. But the case highlighted the impossible situation so many farmworkers find themselves in. Ice has continued targeting Migrant Justice activists.
In the summer of 2017, two were arrested after a 13-mile march from the Vermont State House to Ben Jerry’s headquarters.
The protest was part of Migrant Justice’s most ambitious campaign, “Milk with Dignity”, which aimed to bring to Vermont’s dairy farms a system of worker-run labor inspections pioneered in 2011 by Florida tomato pickers.
The approach has been incredibly effective. In three years, worker-run inspections dramatically improved labor conditions on Florida tomato farms, which one federal judge had described as “ground zero for modern slavery”.
“I heard about the campaign and I was anxious to bring it here,” Balcazar says.
Florida’s tomato and cane fields had long been infamous for inhumane labor practices. In 2011 a group of indigenous workers from Mexico and Central America, members of an alternative labor union called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), decided to apply pressure at the top of the supply chain – on the fast food and retail grocery chains buying tomatoes in bulk.
To do this, they had to win the consumers’ support. The key was making the invisible visible through workers sharing their own stories on cross-country “Truth Tours”.
Field workers called on consumers, students, and clergy nationwide to pressure big tomato buyers to sign onto a Fair Food agreement. The strategy worked, and fast.
In three years, 14 major companies – including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart – agreed to pay tomato growers a penny more per pound to increase worker salaries and fund inspections by an independent Fair Food Standards Council.
CIW’s Fair Food program has since resolved hundreds of wage theft, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse cases and, by 2015, raised $14m through “Fair Food premiums”, bringing thousands of field workers above the poverty line. The program has also pioneered effective resistance to slave labor, including training workers to identify and report these abuses.
Balcazar thought the approach was perfect for Vermont dairy farms.
He knew that workers could not squeeze much out of hard-pressed dairy farmers struggling to survive in a time of corporate farming and falling milk prices. Still, migrant workers had leverage because dairy farming is a cold and dirty job that even unemployed Americans are loath to do.
Vermont’s cows must be milked every twelve hours, 365 days a year, or they will die. And unlike other kinds of farms, dairy farmers are prohibited from using legal guest workers because, until now, the H-2A guest worker program has been limited to seasonal farm workers while dairy farmers need help year-round. (A bill to change that was introduced in October and is working its way through the House and Senate.) So undocumented dairy workers and the Vermont dairy industry are inextricably bound together.
In 2014, Balcazar began pressing Vermont’s largest dairy buyers to demand improved labor conditions in their supply chains.
“Ben Jerry’s is one of the biggest purchasers of milk in Vermont,” Balcazar announced. “They’ve made a powerful brand by advertising that their products are fair trade. Milk with Dignity will make sure that this trade is truly fair.”
Despite its hippie origins, the famous ice-cream company was sold in 2000 to the multinational food conglomerate Unilever. Executives insisted that the company’s corporate responsibility code protected workers well enough. Balcazar disagreed.
Migrant Justice activists protested outside Ben Jerry’s stores in 16 cities. On International Workers’ Day 2015, speakers at a rally outside Ben Jerry’s Vermont headquarters described working conditions in the company’s supply chain.
One worker, Victor Diaz, told of injuries he’d received when glass milk bottles exploded and chlorine (used to disinfect milking rooms) sprayed his eyes. Others spoke of sleep deprivation, because of midnight milking. Twelve-to-fourteen-hour shifts, without a day off, are common. And workers have been housed in barns and unheated trailers through long, frigid Vermont winters.
Dairy work is dangerous and workers in Vermont were angry about risking life and limb. Migrant Justice itself was born of tragedy: in 2009, the 20-year-old Mayan dairy worker José Obeth Santiz-Cruz was strangled to death when his clothing caught in a farm machine.
Many of the workers come from small towns in Chiapas, the southern Mexico region that gave birth to, and has long sustained, the Zapatista rebellion. By 2014, they were ready to rise.
Milk with Dignity was Vermont dairy workers’ bid for a brighter future, and Balcazar thought that Ben Jerry’s should be more than willing to give it to them.
“Ben Jerry’s has stood up for cows (no RGBH), for chickens (cage-free agreement with Humane Society), and for international farmers (fair trade),” Balcazar argued. “They’ve pledged support for climate justice, for Occupy Wall Street … So, after four years of us educating them about farmworker human rights abuses in its supply chain, it’s time Ben Jerry’s stands up for the rights of the same farmworkers who put the cream in ice cream.”
In June 2015, Ben Jerry’s agreed to adopt Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program. But then the foot-dragging began.
Migrant Justice activists went on tour again, partnering with student groups to protest at ice cream shops and college campuses. CIW workers came to Vermont to strategize.
When the Ben Jerry’s CEO, Jostein Solheim, spoke at Stanford, students chanted: “Hey, Ben Jerry’s, can I get some Milk with Dignity in my Cherry Garcia?”
Solheim was conciliatory. He agreed that worker-led safety codes were the best way to improve labor conditions. He patted his pocket and swore that he had a Milk with Dignity contract that “I hope I’m going to sign next week”. More than two years later, he had not signed.
On 17 June 2017, activists marched 13 miles from the Vermont State House to Ben Jerry’s headquarters, where Solheim announced that he was “ready to go”.
Ten days later, Presbyterian congregations across the US sent a joint letter urging him to “not delay any longer … and sign in fact what you have already agreed to in principle”. Methodists sent one too, urged him to “continue Ben Jerry’s legacy of justice-seeking … and fulfill your promise to workers, farmers, and consumers”. And Will Allen, Vermont organic pioneer, led organic farmers in challenging Ben Jerry’s, along with Cabot Creamery, owned by Agri-Mark, to stop running “sweatshop dairies” that abuse farmworkers, exhaust cows, and bankrupt small farmers.
On 27 March 2017, hundreds circled in a chill rain near the JFK Federal Building in Boston, where deportation hearings were under way for Balcazar, Palacios, and Carrillo-Sanchez.
The crowd included activists from Cosecha (Harvest) – a nationwide movement led by and for undocumented workers. Migrant Justice came with 10,000 signatures calling on the judge to free “the Vermont Three”.
Fifty activists went into the courtroom to let the detainees know that “they are not alone. Estamos en la lucha. We are fighting.”
Outside, protesters sang a 1930s union song, The Rich Man’s House, revived in the 1990s by activists seeking to build an international economic human rights movement, which has become an anthem of undocumented workers. “I went down to the courthouse and I took back what they stole from me / I took back my humanity / I took back my dignity / Now it’s under my feet / Ain’t gonna let nobody walk all over me,” they sang.
That evening, citing letters from Vermont’s senators, an immigration judge freed Balcazar and Palacios on bail, though the threat of deportation still loomed.
But “the judge looked straight at my daughter and me and denied bail”, said Lymarie Deida, Alex Carrillo-Sanchez’s wife. “It’s OK. We are going to keep fighting.”
Carrillo-Sanchez was deported on 7 May 2017, leaving behind his wife and daughter, who are US citizens. “I’m angry,” he said. “But there’s no other way.” He has applied for a marriage visa and began an indefinite wait.
On 30 June 2017, Migrant Justice won the release of activists arrested at the Ben Jerry’s protest.
Then, on 3 October, came a sweet, hard-won victory. Ben Jerry’s finally signed the Milk with Dignity agreement, giving dairy workers in their supply chain a full day off each week, Vermont minimum wage ($10 per hour), at least eight hours between shifts, and a guarantee that housing will include a real bed (not straw piles), electricity, and clean running water.
Jostein Solheim, Ben Jerry’s CEO, lauded the company’s leadership: “We love to be part of innovation. We believe in worker-led movements.”
Balcazar spoke to a jubilant crowd in Burlington, Vermont: “This is a historic moment for dairy workers. We have worked tirelessly to get here and now we move forward towards a new day in the industry.”
Adapted from ‘We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now’: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages by Annelise Orleck (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press