by Jeff Gissing
One of the Great Ends of the Church—those “purposes” central to a Presbyterian understanding of the church’s mission—is “the promotion of social righteousness.” No one is sure when or how these Great Ends came to be a part of the Book of Order of the PC (USA), but they are there and they encapsulate the church’s mission in several short, succinct sentences.
Contemporary Presbyterianism is often guilty of looking past the other Great Ends and focusing on social righteousness. When the denomination speaks, it is almost invariably on an issue somehow related to this purpose. In some ways it is reassuring that the church takes seriously its responsibility to speak to society and address societal issues. At times, however, it may appear that the PC (USA) cares about little else.
Promoting social righteousness is, in theory, fairly simple in principle. It means that a constituent part of the church’s mission is to critique those parts of our societal structures that are unrighteous, and to advance to the culture a positive vision of fairness and justice.
As always, the devil is in the details. Not infrequently evangelicals claim that the church ignores grave moral evils (things like abortion, for example) in favor of lesser problems (amnesty for undocumented aliens, for example). Progressives claim that evangelicals can’t get over abortion and homosexuality in order to look at the harm that is occurring to other classes of people. The result is a stalemate, of sorts.
A perfect case in point is the recent action of Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As Stated Clerk, Parsons represents the denomination—along with the Moderator—to the rest of the world. So when he recently joined in a public demonstration calling for the fast food chain Wendy’s to join the “Fair Food Program,” he provided the opportunity to once more explore “social righteousness.” You can read the announcement of the protest on the PC (USA) website here.
Parsons and Lucas Benitez, founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), staged a peaceful, public action demanding that Wendy’s join the CIW’s Fair Food Program. The CIW describes itself as a “community-based worker organization” that represents migrant workers—predominantly Latino, Haitian, and Maya Indian—whose labor brings in Florida’s $600 million annual tomato crop.
The Fair Food Program (FFP) is an initiative of the CIW that attempts to reverse downward pressure on farm worker wages by consolidation in the food industry. It does so by levying a premium on the price of a crop to provide for increases in wages that otherwise might not occur. It also works to promote a safe and healthy working environment for migrant workers and the eradication of child labor. The program has been widely endorsed and, interestingly, Wendy’s is the only fast food chain that has not directly affiliated with the program.
Most reasonable people can agree that the vision of ten year-old children harvesting tomatoes in the fields of Florida is not one we would wish to advance for our country. Neither would we wish to return to the days before mandatory health and safety inspections that reduced the incidence of grossly disfiguring injuries in the workplace and provided Worker Comp to cover the cost of workplace injuries. However, it is possible to go too far in advancing participation in a program such as FFP.
Parsons noted, “We are dismayed that Wendy’s has yet to join this proven program and we appeal to CEO Emil Brolick to embody the resolve and foresight he demonstrated while president of Taco Bell when it became the first corporation to sign a fair food agreement with the CIW in 2005.”
On its face, how could this not seem like a fair application of the principle of promoting social righteousness? Would we not all wish that Wendy’s participated in a program that is almost universally praised?
Again, the devil is in the details. In response to the protest, Wendy’s has made clear that while it is not itself a member of the FFP, each of its Florida tomato suppliers is. At the same time, the CIW contends, “As Wendy’s positions itself to implement sustainable business practices and promotes its sourcing of ‘honest ingredients,’ it must realize that respect for human rights and worker participation are integral components of the genuine sustainability that today’s consumers expect and demand.”
Who is right?
Since its tomato suppliers participate in the FFP, Wendy’s claims that each has:
Adopted the Fair Food Code of Conduct;
Agreed to implement a system of health and safety volunteers, which affords workers regular and structured input into the safety of their work environment;
Agreed to an independent and verifiable complaint investigation and remediation mechanism
Agreed to have compliance with the program independently monitored
Agreed to a worker education program conducted on company premises and company time
The heart of the conflict is around wages. In the competitive fast food market, Wendy’s has taken the decision to enter into contracts with its suppliers, farmers. This is a common practice not only in the food industry, but also across business.
Wendy’s neither owns these farms nor employs the farmers—they are legally separate entities. The farmers, rather than Wendy’s, employ the workers who actually harvest the crops. These workers relate to the farms in a variety of legal and illegal employment statuses. According to the National Agricultural Workers’ Survey (NAWS), around 48% of workers do not have legal authorization to work in the United States. This is why it’s of no little importance that franchises like Wendy’s agree to require their suppliers to engage in fair labor practices.
Since Wendy’s does not directly employ the workers, however, it is not appropriate that Wendy’s be asked to pay a premium to cover the cost of salary stabilization for these workers. Wendy’s has, as a business decision, chosen to limit its liability and exposure to variations in crop price by using contracted suppliers rather than buying and operating its own farms. This is an efficient solution to the issue of supplying good food for its restaurants. It allows Wendy’s to focus on its core business, which is the sale of foods rather than the entire production process.
Demanding that Wendy’s pay a premium to suppliers alters this agreement and distorts the market. Wendy’s rightly contends that it is the role of farmers to set wages for contract workers and then to pass that cost on to clients. Given that every other fast food restaurant has agreed to pay this premium directly to the exchanges, Wendy’s could actually pay an increased price for the goods and still achieve a better price that other restaurants while producing an increase in revenue to the farmers. Whether this increase in revenue will be passed onto workers is another question. In that instance, it is the farmers rather than Wendy’s who ought to be subject to Gradye’s ire rather than Wendy’s.