‘Tomato Rabbis’ Increase Heat On ‘Activist’ Investor


What happens when an activist rabbi meets an activist investor — who’s also Jewish?

Not much. Yet.

But Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, who works in the Immokalee tomato fields of southwest Florida with migrant farm workers, has investor Nelson Peltz in her sights now more than ever.

After about two years of asking Peltz to see that fast food company Wendy’s joins a program that helps tomato pickers, the rabbi and her colleagues at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have scheduled their biggest campaign yet, for March.

“He’s a shareholder with the kind of power, that if he said Wendy’s should support the Fair Food Program, the corporation would,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “We thought, ‘Maybe it would influence him if he heard from rabbis.’”

Peltz is the co-founder of investment fund Trian Fund Management, called an “activist” firm because it makes change in the companies it invests in by obtaining seats on their boards. Trian is the largest shareholder of fast food company Wendy’s, and Peltz is the chairman of its board.

The tomato pickers want Wendy’s to sign onto the coalition’s Fair Food Program, which requires restaurant companies to pay a premium – a penny per pound – that goes directly to the farm workers. Also, participants in the program can buy the fruit only from growers who comply with its standards for workplace conditions, such as lunch breaks and a system for stopping work in the event of dangerous conditions from hazards like lightning, heat or chemicals.

In other industries, workers might have pushed for these reforms through a union, but farm workers in most states can’t organize in that way because they were excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which forbids employers from firing a worker for union activity.

Wendy’s rivals have joined the program; McDonald’s, the biggest fast food chain in the United States by sales in 2014, according to QSR magazine, a trade publication, did so in 2007. Subway, the third-biggest and Burger King, the fourth-biggest, have joined as well. (Coffee chain Starbucks, not a big buyer of tomatoes, is the second-biggest.) Wendy’s is fifth-biggest.

That makes Wendy’s a fat target for the 5,000-member Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which grew out of community organizing efforts that started in Immokalee more than two decades ago against wage abuses, sexual harassment and slavery.

“The conditions were horrendous,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “To stay that people’s living conditions were substandard is an understatement.”

Today, the Fair Food program covers 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry, or 30,000 workers, said Patricia Cipollitti, a staffer at the Alliance for Fair Food, an organization of groups working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Those groups include the Student/Farmworker Alliance, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the United Methodist Church and T’ruah, the Jewish human rights group where Rabbi Kahn-Troster works as an organizer.

T’ruah works to educate the Jewish community about the religious values that compel Jews to support workers rights, but they also write opinion pieces and participate in marches.

“We want [T’ruah members] to take action in a public way,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “We don’t want them to just teach and give sermons. They take students and congregants to stores and restaurants and ask managers to pass the message up the chain of command.”

Because T’ruah’s officers and members are all clergy — rabbis and cantors — they are used to leading, but when they sign up to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, they’re followers, Rabbi Kahn-Troster said.

Nely Rodriguez, a CIW member, said putting the workers front and central is essential to the mission. “Something we at the CIW have done and continue to do is take the worker out of the shadows. We have witnessed the abuses; we know the conditions and we know the solutions that are necessary to go forward.”

However, for the march, the workers want Rabbi Kahn-Troster, to take a leading role in the hope that she can influence Peltz, because he is Jewish.

Peltz is also a philanthropist with a range of interests, including Jewish causes. He co-chairs the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and is chairman of the center’s Museum of Tolerance. He’s also a supporter of Weill Cornell Medical College, the Prostate Center Foundation and the Intrepid Museum Foundation.

But so far, he hasn’t listened to T’ruah or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The campaign to persuade Peltz started in the spring of 2013, when the coalition rallied in New York outside Wendy’s annual shareholder meeting. Over the next two years, hundreds of “tomato rabbis” wrote letters to Peltz; rallied at local Wendy’s restaurants; presented themselves at his 280 Park Avenue offices and faxed and called him. Once, a group of activists caught a glimpse of Peltz himself in his offices, but were turned away because they didn’t have an appointment, and the next year, they didn’t get past lobby security.

“They wouldn’t even let us leave a letter,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster lamented.

Now the coalition and its rabbi allies are planning more than a week of Peltz-focused activism starting on March 2. Between 300 and 400 people are expected to march on his New York offices; a protest in Columbus, Ohio, where Wendy’s has its headquarters should draw about 1,000 people and about the same number will participate in a culminating rally in Palm Beach, Fla., where Peltz owns two mansions, Cipollitti said. Palm Beach is about two hours from Immokalee by car.

Trian Partners declined to comment for this article.

Wendy’s however, did.

Spokesman Bob Bertini responded by pointing to Wendy’s new code of conduct for suppliers, released in late 2015. According to the code, Wendy’s expects its suppliers to comply with all relevant local, state and federal laws regarding such issues as safety, wages and harassment.

Also, Bertini said, Wendy’s buys its tomatoes from participants in the Fair Food Program when it buys fruit grown in Florida.

The code states that it is “mandatory,” but “not punitive.” To Rabbi Kahn-Troster, that means it’s not an adequate substitute for the Fair Food Program.

“The CIW’s program is binding,” she said. “It has teeth. It’s not something that companies should aspire to. It creates a standard.”

That might be exactly why Wendy’s doesn’t want to join the movement, said Professor Karen Cates of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. A third party — in this case the Coalition of Immokalee Workers — might complicate Wendy’s relationships with its growers.

“Any time an organization links itself with a third party working on behalf of those with whom they can deal directly, they lose flexibility,” Cates said. “The real business question is why would companies join a movement that puts their suppliers on the spot, puts pressure on prices, and diminishes their control over the supply chain?”

But the Fair Food Program’s proponents have different priorities. Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner knows Peltz and his colleagues want to manage their business with as little interference as possible, but say that is less important than workers’ welfare.

“It’s amazing what adding a penny can do,” said Bronfenbrenner. “It has made such a huge difference in worker’s lives, and it’s such a small difference for stores and fast food companies.”

Some companies believe participation in the Fair Food Program will benefit their image. Whole Foods and Ahold, the supermarket chain, are talking to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers about designing a label for Fair Food Program tomatoes in order to enhance their social consciousness bona fides, said coalition member Lupe Gonazalo.

Those public relations issues might induce Peltz and Wendy’s other leaders to reverse their position on the Fair Food Program.

“Wendy’s may be waiting this issue out – and if costs to its public image outweigh the costs of joining they may change their mind,” Cates said.