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Milk With Dignity Comes to Maine

by | Nov 12, 2021 | Featured, Labor, Reports

On Monday afternoon, November 8, shoppers at the Back Cove Portland Hannaford looked on as a crowd of more than 200 people gathered across the lot. Busses rolled in and a coalition of Vermont farmworkers got off, waving signs and carrying megaphones. Meanwhile, cars bringing supporters from all surrounding states arrived, joining locals to demand Milk with Dignity alongside Migrant Justice. Enrique Balcazar, a former dairy worker, urged Hannaford to clean up their supply chain, “We are all part of the working class. And during this pandemic, all these workers, farmworkers included, are considered essential workers. Hannaford is responsible for the rights and wellbeing of all these essential workers. From the workers putting the milk on the shelves, to the workers like us who are milking the cows in the barn. All of us deserve dignity.”

Marchers in Portland demand labor rights for dairy worker. Photo credit Allie Orphardt

Milk with Dignity was started to secure Vermont dairy workers the fair wages and safe working conditions that farm workers have been historically denied. The program starts with buyers agreeing to sign a pledge with Migrant Justice; this requires all their supplier farms to join the Milk with Dignity program. Once the farm partners with Milk with Dignity, all of the workers are protected by a code of conduct which was developed by the very workers whose rights it is intended to protect. In 2017, Milk with Dignity won a historic victory by pressuring Ben and Jerry’s to sign on. The program now covers one hundred percent of their supply chain, protecting workers at sixty-five dairy farms throughout Vermont and New York. Migrant Justice’s next target is Hannaford, potentially protecting thousands of workers from exploitative conditions.

The dairy workers told powerful stories of their previous working conditions and how Milk with Dignity had helped them secure basic human rights. Workers were living in housing with no heat, working seven days a week, and not making minimum wage or overtime. Ed Sunday-Winters, Pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ in Vermont, explained, “Why did I come here today? My God, I came because every worker in America deserves a fair wage, a safe place to live, and access to healthcare without fear of losing their job or any reprisal. That should just be the basic standard of what it means to be a worker in this country.”

The march included supporters from every state in New England and was supported locally by the Southern Maine Labor Council and the Maine Democratic Socialists of America. Among the crowd were two Maine state representatives showing their support, Grayson Lookner (D-37, Portland) and Thom Harnett (D-83, Farmingdale and Gardiner). Harnett has drafted three farmworker labor rights bills in the last three years; he told Pine and Roses, “Farmworkers in Maine are not considered employees, they are not covered by minimum wage, they are not covered by overtime, so you work seventy hours a week, you get the same pay you get for the seventieth hour as you did the first.” Harnett’s bill on the right to organize, LD 151, passed through the Maine House and Senate with slim margins but is stuck on Janet Mills’ desk, waiting for her signature. “I would have wished she would have supported this basic human rights bill but I’m still hopeful that we get it into law. [But] the power doesn’t come from the legislature unfortunately. Farm workers work in ways that are often invisible, people don’t see them when they drive by the farm. This shows people they are human beings, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbors, they have families with kids. They are human beings that deserve to be treated with the dignity that we all assume we are going to get when we go to work. And the approach with milk with dignity and migrant justice is to put that power in the worker’s hand.”

“Si, se puede” (“Yes, we can.”) echoed through the streets of Portland as the marchers made their way from Hannaford to the Hood milk plant where Hannaford brand milk is bottled. To date, Hannaford has not yet responded to Migrant Justice’s call to sign onto Milk with Dignity and guarantee basic human rights in their supply chain. But the crowd outside of the supermarket let CEO Ron Hodge know that they do not plan on stopping until he signs on. These dairy workers are not alone. Their demands can be boiled down to a simple idea: workers all across America are demanding to be treated with dignity.

Allie Ophardt

Allie Ophardt is from Phoenix, Arizona, currently residing in Portland, Maine, and is minoring in creative writing.

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