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Scores of farm workers, activists march on Ben & Jerry's

Last Updated Jun 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm EST

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Scores of dairy farm workers and activists marched Saturday to a Ben & Jerry’s factory to push for better pay and living conditions on farms that provide milk for the ice cream maker that takes pride in its social activism.

Protesters said Ben & Jerry’s agreed two years ago to participate in the so-called Milk with Dignity program, but the company and worker representatives have yet to reach an agreement.

“We can’t wait any more. We are going to pressure them and see what happens,” said Victor Diaz, a Mexican immigrant now working on a farm in Vergennes.

The march that began Saturday morning in Montpelier ended mid-afternoon at the plant in Waterbury, about 14 miles away. Organized Will Lambek said the marchers presented a letter to company CEO Jostein Solheim who said the company was committed to joining the program.

Ben & Jerry’s spokesman Sean Greenwood said before Saturday’s march from the Statehouse to the Waterbury factory that the company was eager to reach an agreement and negotiations were underway.

“We are a values-led business. We frame ourselves as an aspiring social justice company,” said Greenwood. “We try to do good with everything we can with our business. Dairy has definitely been one of those issues we have done a ton of work on for decades.”

Ben & Jerry’s touts its social activism as much as its quirky ice-cream flavours such as Cherry Garcia, Chunky Monkey and Phish Food. Many of its raw materials, like sugar, cocoa, vanilla, bananas and coffee come from producers across the world that subscribe to the Fairtrade program, which promotes higher prices and better working conditions for farmers.

About 85 per cent of the milk Ben & Jerry’s uses in its ice cream made in North America comes from about 80 Vermont dairy farms. Its Caring Dairy program promotes sustainable farming by offering farmers cash incentives for keeping up with best management practices.

The Milk with Dignity program was developed in 2014 by farm workers and the Vermont group Migrant Justice to ensure that farms provide them fair wages and working conditions and decent housing. In 2015, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to join the program. Since then, the two sides have been negotiating over the details.

“We’ve been negotiating in good faith,” said Lambek. “It’s an unacceptable delay.”

Greenwood said Ben & Jerry’s didn’t get the first details from the workers until a year ago and the two sides have been working since then to reach an agreement.

“It has to work for the farmers, the farm owners, and it has to work for the businesses involved and that’s the complex piece,” Greenwood said. “How do you make sure that it will be operationalized so it’s a win-win across the board and that’s what we’ve been working on for well over a year now.”