Sparkplug Award, 2021 Recipient

Members of Migrant Justice receiving the 2021 Sparkplug Award on September 23, 2021.

Migrant Justice – the whole organization comprised of migrant farmworker leaders—has been named recipient of the 2021 “Sparkplug Award,” aka. the Frank Hatch Award for Enlightened Public Service.

Migrant Justice builds the voice, capacity, and power of the migrant farmworker community and engages community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights.  Under the Migrant Justice umbrella, the migrant farmworker community in Vermont comes together to discuss and analyze shared problems and envision collective solutions.  Through ongoing investment in leadership development, members deepen their skills in community education and organizing for long-term systemic change.  From this basis, Migrant Justice members have built a movement to secure dairy farmworkers the fundamental human rights of: 1) Quality health care; 2) Dignified work and fair housing; 3) Freedom of movement and access to transportation; 4) Freedom from discrimination.

Corporate consolidation at the top of the dairy industry has imperiled small- and medium-scale dairy production.  Multinational processors and distributors have made immense profits while driving down the price of milk, often below the costs of production.  Over 100 Vermont dairy farms have gone under in the past five years, and many of the 700 that remain are heavily mortgaged and operating on razor-thin margins.   To survive, farms have had to grow, and the low-wage workers are increasingly immigrants from Mexico and Central America.  Fifteen years ago, approximately 10% of the hired labor force in the industry was foreign-born; today that number is estimated at 90%.

Since 2014, JMF has supported Migrant Justice to develop its innovative and effective “Milk with Dignity” campaign that applies the lessons of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ successful Fair Food Program  (FFP) to the dairy industry.  Whereas many efforts are underway to build more sustainable, local, and resilient food systems, the FFP is one of the few that truly takes the lead from the very people who labor in the food system.  With this example, and with support from the CIW, Migrant Justice leaders designed a program that rests on five essential elements: 1) establishment of a farmworker-authored Code of Conduct for farms in the Milk with Dignity program; 2) guaranteed farmworker education about their rights under the Code of Conduct; 3) creation of a third-party monitoring body to monitor, enforce and audit farmer compliance with Code of Conduct; 4) participating corporations must restore economic justice in the supply chain by paying an extra premium directly to both farmworkers and farmers; and 5) participating corporations must sign a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under the law.

In 2014, Migrant Justice identified Ben & Jerry’s as the first corporation to approach with the Milk with Dignity Program.  When talks with the company proved unsuccessful, Migrant Justice launched a public campaign that featured a proposed National Day of Action at seventeen Ben &Jerry’s scoop shops across the country.  The day before the action, company executives met with Migrant Justice and signed an “agreement of cooperation” with farmworker leaders, committing to adopt the program in the company’s dairy supply chain.  Over the next two and a half years—with repeated promises from Ben & Jerry’s and continuous negotiation—Migrant Justice applied pressure on the company through an escalating national campaign that mobilized thousands.  Finally, in October 2017, following a twelve-city speaking tour and two days before a national day of action, Ben & Jerry’s signed a legally-binding agreement formally adopting the program in their supply chain.

The John Merck Fund proudly names Migrant Justice as the 2021 Sparkplug recipient in recognition of their collective leadership in securing economic justice and human rights for immigrant dairy farmworkers in Vermont.