Did Sister Ruth Neglect to Reflect on McDonald’s?

I first met Sister Ruth Rosenbaum at the University of Wisconsin’s Living Wage Symposium in 1999. Her Hartford-based Center for Reflection, Education and Action (CREA), established in 1995, had produced impressive reports on miserable wages and working conditions in Haiti and Mexico, and I soon assigned them to students in my course on global sweatshops.

The studies were technical but, like the organization's title, reflective. By CREA's own telling, that credo of "reflection" -- contemplation before collaboration -- helped produce an answer to corporate claims that a "living wage" could be defined as enough earnings to enable a worker to stay alive. This PhD Roman Catholic nun's answer: go forth, meet the workers, know how they live and how much they need to earn to lead sustainable lives. Since its founding, CREA has led or cosponsored shareholder initiatives demanding justice for workers in national and international campaigns, from Taco Bell to Wal-Mart.

So why today are so many labor specialists saying that CREA is behaving like a PR adjunct to Ronald McDonald?

Under its website's ubiquitous “I’m Lovin’ It” logo, McDonald's doesn't list CREA among its “expert advisors and other resources”. Instead one finds the usual corporate social responsibility love suspects, like Business for Social Responsibility and the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum.

But click through to "McDonald’s and Its Tomato Suppliers" and you can find McDonald’s boasting that “We are working with CREA and the University of Miami to quantify the impact of…McDonald’s Grower Standards.” The Ronald McDonald Charities website also highlights the company's relationship with CREA in a "cooperative monitoring project to support sustained social responsible action over time.” Its Happy Meal-ish title is “Project Kaleidoscope.”

So what? Well, even if it’s not “love,” there’s more than a dispassionate relationship here. CREA, which describes itself as an interfaith advocate for workers, is now taking McDonald's cash to issue its "independent" reports on McDonald's growers. The nonprofit is also holding a $200,000 escrow account funded by growers for McDonald's to compensate workers if CREA's research should happen to find that they have been underpaid.

More than thirty labor specialists, from Cynthia Estlund at Columbia Law School to labor historian William Forbath at the University of Texas, have excoriated CREA’s April 16, 2006, report, which praises the wage and benefit practices of a single McDonald’s tomato supplier. The report does not identify the supplier by name, but asserts that some of its tomato workers pick their way into the 70th percentile of U.S. wage earners, at more than $18 per hour. On average, reports CREA, this individual McDonald’s supplier exceeds industry best practices and even beat Taco Bell, which recently reached an unprecedented agreement with the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) to directly increase their growers' per-bucket pay by a penny a pound. CREA’s report coincided with a CIW advocacy campaign seeking direct negotiation with McDonald's of a range of workplace issues, including the per-bucket rate.

CREA's interim report and its selection of a single grower for study shortly before the worker's campaign (and McDonald's annual meeting) carry a familiar echo of McDonald's PR-guided approach to workplace social responsibility. Until recently, CREA had declined to comment on any of the criticism, but Sister Ruth agreed to speak with us about some of the controversy. More on that in a moment.


Last year, McDonald's helped to create a pleasantly-acronymed grower’s association, SAFE, (for “Socially Accountable Farm Employer"), whose board includes a vegetable growers association in Florida, plus a migrant childcare association that receives funds from the growers. SAFE hired McDonald’s own PR firm, CBR Public Relations, which specializes in "activist response management," and hired McDonald’s accounting firm, Intertek, to conduct its audits.

The SAFE standards mostly involve following local law, and offer a “SAFE” seal of approval to those who do. This approach is reminiscent of what happened in Central America’s apparel industry in the mid-1990s when an independent monitoring capacity emerged, with ongoing participation by affected workers. Industry responded by attempting to create its own auditor-controlled monitoring and certification system. SAFE and CREA appear to be playing a similar role as a substitute for authentic worker voices.

Curiously, McDonald’s itself showed SAFE to be somewhat sorry by ratcheting up several of McDonald’s own key labor standards beyond what SAFE requires of its member growers. For example, McDonald’s required that its contract growers formally “employ” farm workers (rather than hire them as independent contractors), thereby limiting the economic power of crew leaders and offering eligibility to government benefits. Based on CREA’s report, some growers have developed subsidized housing for pickers. Then there's the escrow account. But McDonald’s has not negotiated any of these improvements with the tomato workers’ representatives, preferring instead to assemble its nonlabor choir of supporters. Perhaps it’s harder to be “lovin' it” when the faces across the table are sunburned workers and their representatives rather than friendly farm suppliers. Three other national labor specialists have weighed in on this strategy: former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, former National Labor Relations Board Chair William Gould and Harvard Law Professor Paul Weiler declared McDonald’s tactics a classic antilabor dodge in their April 24, 2006 statement.

Given McDonald’s substantial presence in Florida (purchasing more than one percent of all the tomatoes), however, it is hard to imagine why McDonald’s doesn’t just knock at CIW’s door and negotiate with its leadership. University of California economic professor Paul Ortiz offers one possible reason to the Associated Press: the Florida farmworker movement may be "the new proving ground" for collective action by workers, akin to the anti-sweatshop movement in apparel and footwear that surged in the 1990s.

A 'Cojones Contest'?

Reenter CREA. According to Sister Ruth’s own website, CREA suspended its “reflection” credo in order to rush its first report to market. CREA officially states that it decided “in response to numerous inquiries” to issue periodic reports rather than publish its study when it was complete. Bruce Nissen, director of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy of Florida International University described CREA’s report as “so riddled with errors both large and small that it cannot be accepted as factually accurate on virtually any measure." One glaring error has CREA puffing the pickers' actual pay by using an inaccurate formula for the 32-pound bucket piece rates. Nissen contends that CREA's conclusions cannot be reconciled with government statistics that show, on average, that pickers' rates remain at poverty levels, with a mean wage of $7.61 per hour. Corrected for inflation, migrant worker pay rates have been stagnant for 30 years.

Though CREA says that it has “worked collaboratively for several years” with McDonald’s in China, it nowhere discloses how much McDonald’s is paying for the study. When I asked Sister Ruth, she responded by asking me my salary (which I told her) and saying that the amount of the contract was irrelevant. It isn’t unprecedented for advocacy and human rights groups to accept some corporate funds to engage in monitoring—such as to match advocacy or foundation grants. But for a sensitive study like this one, it’s a terrible idea. Moreover, it's baffling (until you hear the explanation) that CREA would release one report while holding off on the kind of detailed report that might have offered not only reflection but comparison, deliberation and discussion.

So why did CREA create it?

That's the "billions and billions served" question.

I asked Sister Ruth, and she explained in a voice full of frustration (punctuated by Spanish slang and a Yiddish saying) that "There is a time to be in campaign work and a time for constructive engagement. Now was the time for constructive engagement. I stand by that."

She asserts that the CIW "victory" at Taco Bell is illusory because workers are only getting a fraction of the "penny a pound" subsidy that Taco Bell pays per bucket of tomatos-- they work at farms that supply lots of different businesses, so the subsidy to Taco Bell pickers is dispersed among all the workers. CREA had been a prime mover of the shareholder action at Taco Bell (which won a remarkable 39 percent of shareholder support), but, after that action, according to Sister Ruth, CIW didn't want to sit down and undertake a broader "sustainable wage" study. Other Taco Bell campaign partners, such as Oxfam and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, decided to stick with a demand for McDonald's to negotiate with CIW. Sister Ruth was determined to do the study, she says, so she set out on her own path with the company she had already collaborated with in China.

She insists that McDonald's funding for the study doesn't affect CREA's work: "It is a totally independent report. McDonald's had no role in editing, no changes, no decision about what would be in the report." So why the early and limited release of just one grower's pay system? "That's the biggest mistake we made," she says. "McDonald's asked us to release whatever we could before the CIW 'truth campaign'."

So CREA released its preliminary report, undermining CIW. Independent? Not.

Sister Ruth also explained why CREA has declined up to now to respond in any way to the withering criticism of its first report: "How's your Spanish? Because it would be a 'cojones' contest." She contends that CIW has its own vested backers "who have their own leverage" and want a fight, not a report. "The question is how to bring about change. We could enter the grand 'cojones' but it doesn't further the issue of helping workers."

Change in the tomato and other vegetable fields, she argues, would come most effectively with broader pressure on growers, packagers, processors and supermarkets, not by inordinate attention to restaurant brands, which she derides as "campaigns, campaigns, campaigns."

That's not the way Sister Ruth sounded last year when Wal-Mart claimed that it was undertaking a new social responsibility initiative. She aired her reflective side: “[I]’m going to watch and wait and not be willing to give kudos for…announcements. Remember what our mothers told us when we were kids—‘actions speak louder than words.”

In the present case, CREA (whose name in Spanish can mean either “believe!” or “create”) has become not a watchdog of McDonald's, but more its lapdog.


MacDonalds aren't gettting any of my tomatoes.

In the UK August 2009 tomatoes sell in the supermarket for $0.76 / pound, which makes a 32 pound bucket full worth $24.37. I wonder how much of that the pickers see.