On Sunday, May 1 — on the holiday known as May Day and International Workers’ Day — a large crowd gathered outside Hannaford supermarket in Middlebury to promote Milk with Dignity, a Migrant Justice program in support of migrant dairy workers. They held signs reading “The Cows Don’t Milk Themselves” and “I Am An Essential Worker,” alongside homemade signs in both English and Spanish. Chants of “Si se puede!" (“Yes we can!”) rose in full voice from the assembly, which included farm workers, local Middlebury residents and Middlebury students.
“Our primary goal is to get Hannafords to join milk with dignity,” protest organizer Rubinay said. “We want them to understand that many of the workers on their farms are treated unfairly and do not receive things like medical care and paid sick days.” They said that they hope that urging Hannaford to join Milk with Dignity will bring better working conditions for farm workers. Rubinay asked to be identified only by their first name for safety reasons.
For years, activists have claimed that migrant dairy workers have been subjected to poor housing, dangerous work environments and racial discrimination. Many have their pay illegally withheld and are not given adequate food or rest. According to Migrant Justice, 40% of farmworkers are paid less than the Vermont minimum wage and have no days off. Among female employees, sexual abuse has become a major issue, while many undocumented workers would rather avoid contacting authorities than risk deportation.
Milk with Dignity, a program from Migrant Justice, began in 2009 after the tragic death of a young dairy worker named José Obeth Santiz Cruz. The program is dedicated to protecting migrant dairy workers and has partnered with corporations to render workers more visible and improve working conditions. Under Milk with Dignity, participating food industry leaders are enlisted to pay a premium for milk to their farmers, provided that the farmers agree to follow the Milk with Dignity code of conduct. This includes paying workers the Vermont minimum wage and providing them with dignified housing. In 2017, Milk with Dignity struck a deal with Ben and Jerry’s, whose then-CEO Jostein Solheim called it “the definition of a win-win program” in an article from the Burlington Free Press.
Milk with Dignity has identified Hannaford supermarkets as the target of their current campaign. Hannaford is one of the largest supermarket chains in the Northeast and a major dairy vendor. On Sunday, supporters came forward, megaphones in hand, to lend their voices to the protest. Farm workers spoke about their own experiences and how Milk with Dignity has improved their workplaces. Local grocers stood by, shouting the occasional “thank you!” as they left the store.
At around noon, the protest leaders walked to the entrance of the supermarket. There, they met the branch manager and handed over a letter asking Hannaford to sign onto the Milk with Dignity program. The protesters then enjoyed a lunch of tamales and homemade hot cocoa before heading to a Hannaford in Burlington, where they would protest again.
This International Workers Day, Milk with Dignity held protests at more than thirty Hannafords across the Northeast, including in South Burlington, where hundreds of supporters marched a mile down a highway to a Hannaford location. Hannaford has not yet signed on to Milk With Dignity, but the Migrant Justice campaign continues.
Charlie Deichman-Caswell ’24 (he/him) is a Photo Editor and Contributing Writer.
Charlie is an Environmental Studies major with a concentration in Anthropology, and French minor. He enjoys athletic activities such as climbing and soccer, as well as other hobbies like photography and creative writing. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors with friends, reading, watching movies, and generally chilling out.