Ben & Jerry’s : The Problem With Corporate Racial Justice Activism

Corporations continue to make vague statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but Ben & Jerry’s called for specific political action. Here's why their statement & conduct, still contributes to white supremacy.

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

When the murder of George Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the country, many corporations responded with statements of support, pledges to make minor internal changes, or demands for government to take action against police brutality and racism. Large corporations including DoorDash, NBCUniversal, Facebook, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, CBS, Skittles, Verizon, Papa John’s, Old Navy, VSCO, Beyond Meat, Tampa Bay Rays, Juul, Nestlé, Oprah, Google, and Twitter continue to issue such statements.

In early June, Ben & Jerry’s, a Vermont ice cream company, issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement entitled ‘We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.’ 

“What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning,” the statement reads. 

“What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is the fruit borne of toxic seeds planted on the shores of our country in Jamestown in 1619, when the first enslaved men and women arrived on this continent. Floyd is the latest in a long list of names that stretches back to that time and that shore.”

The statement outlines four demands: President Trump “disavowing white supremacists and nationalist groups that overtly support him” and ceasing racist tweets which normalize their vision, Congress passing H.R. 40 a bill to “create a commission to study the effects of slavery” and recommend appropriate remedies, the creation of a national task force to draft bipartisan legislation aimed at “ending racial violence and increasing police accountability,” and the Department of Justice to reinstate consent decrees to curb police abuses.

Ben & Jerry’s received enormous praise following the statement. Writer for the Atlantic, Jemele Hill, tweeted, “@benandjerrys just put all other corporate statements to shame. THIS is how you put out a statement.” Naima Cochrane, music industry executive and writer, tweeted, “I don’t think I know of a single brand that sticks to their mission statement and core values like @benandjerrys. Without fail.” CNN even ran a story with the headline, “why Ben & Jerry’s statement on white supremacy is so extraordinary,” similar in content to a Bloomberg article entitled, “how Ben & Jerry’s Perfected the Delicate Recipe for Corporate Activism.”

This praise, based solely on the company’s most recent and past statements on social justice, allows Ben & Jerry’s to successfully abstract their existence as a hierarchical corporation from American white supremacy. 

To praise companies for ‘speaking out’ on Black Lives Matter, is to ignore the power they hold over the lives of their Black workers and how their failure to relinquish this power contributes to the invention of the racial prejudice they denounce.

Corporations and activism

“Companies have to actually, truly, be ready and willing to address their impact, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” said Rashad Robinson, the Executive Director of Color of Change. “A lot of companies say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but Ben & Jerry’s has actually put energy, time, and flavor behind Black Lives Matter. This is not new for them.” Robinson referred to the company’s history of ideologically consistent statements.

Marker columnist Rob Walker argued that the company’s statement is substantially different from other corporations’ because “the Ben & Jerry’s statement looks us in the eye, avoiding safe platitudes.” This argument fails because ‘speaking out’ is a tool for the relatively disempowered. 

For the working class or disenfranchised American, economically disempowered and systemically distanced from the political class, showing public support for a cause at protests and on social media is often the only accessible way to feel involved in political discourse; for a company, it is not. The corporation, in America, is radically empowered. American corporations have control over their workers’ time, healthcare, salaries or wages, living situation, diet, and if their workers are able to raise and sustain a family. 

Corporations have the choice to empower workers by becoming a worker-owned and operated company, which shares decision making power and profits evenly. This is the only way to change the corporation’s status as an instrument of the ruling class, and, due to the historical context of modern America, an instrument of white supremacy. There are over 500 worker-owned businesses already in the US. These businesses all allow workers the option of partial ownership of their employer, the majority of earnings and losses are allocated to workers, and workers-owners have decision making power over the company. By eliminating the power imbalance between worker and owner, worker-owned businesses are antiracist. Racist businesses, in contrast, reinforce the power dynamic between owners who are overwhelmingly white and workers who are disproportionately of color

The Bloomberg article referenced substantive critiques of companies who made flawed statements, but not of Ben & Jerry’s. Bloomberg columnists Jordyn Holman and Thomas Buckley, for example, referenced the American Civil Liberties Union’s response to McDonald’s statement that each Black victim is “one of us” which questioned the company’s denial of healthcare to hundreds of thousands of Black workers. When legitimate labor criticisms are reserved for companies who make ‘problematic’ statements, they read more as ad hominem attacks and less as a coherent view of economic and racial justice.

Ben & Jerry’s : a labor critique

Ben & Jerry’s is operated, as most corporations are, by a hierarchical structure. The CEO receives “direction, counsel and support” from a Board of Directors. This means Ben & Jerry’s workers have no control over the company, no vote when the company considers layoffs, chooses a healthcare plan, wages, or other choices which influence their lives.

“Capitalism and the wealth it produces do not create opportunity for everyone equally,” the company acknowledged, alongside its explanation of its corporate structure. “We recognize that the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than at any time since the 1920s. We strive to create economic opportunities for those who have been denied them and to advance new models of economic justice that are sustainable and replicable.” 

In reality, Ben & Jerry’s does not provide ‘economic justice’ for its workers, it simply provides a better-than-average standard of living for some of its employees.

Ben & Jerry’s entry-level workers are paid a ‘livable wage’ of $17.09 per hour, or $35,547 per year. The company’s ‘living wage’ standard is the cost of living in the State of Vermont. This ‘living wage’ does not translate to other Ben & Jerry’s locations, the company has locations around the globe and in the U.S. alone there are 15 states which have a cost of living above that of Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s has locations in all but two of these states.

This is but one labor issue in the modern-day Ben & Jerry’s shop, and the further back you look the worse the company appears. Despite their consistently positive record on social justice advocacy, supporting LGBTQ+ rights, the Great Barrier Reef, and Alaskan wildlife, their history on labor within their own company is one of fighting progress at every step of the way by using their ‘socially responsible’ image against workers.

In 1998, a group of maintenance workers at the St. Albans, Vermont plant attempted to unionize under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers after management refused to pay them time and a half to work on weekends and beyond normal business hours. 

Ben & Jerry’s management fought hard to prevent their workers from unionizing. The Union leader, who coordinated the drive to join, called the company’s campaign “very aggressive” compared to his other unionization efforts. The company’s management used scare tactics to prevent workers from joining, including holding individual closed-door meetings with workers, telling workers if they joined the union they would be “expected to go on strike at the drop of a hat.” This is misleading, strikes are a last resort tactic rarely employed. The Teamsters Union, for example, resolves 95% of contract negotiations without calling for a strike. If a strike is called, it is a lengthy organizing process as Union leadership must notify the employer, and call the action to a vote before the strike occurs.

The workers voted to unionize after other attempts by Ben & Jerry’s to stop them, including company leadership publicly arguing that there was no need to unionize because the workers were already paid above the minimum wage and provided paid family leave. Paul Mischler, a labor educator from New York commented, in the case of Ben & Jerry’s and other socially conscious employers, “being an unconventional boss can be used to justify being an undemocratic boss.”

Nineteen years later, in 2017, Ben & Jerry’s fought against another worker challenge to their power. Milk with Dignity was a Migrant Justice worker campaign to instate worker-run inspections of Vermont dairy farms. The campaign began targeting Ben & Jerry’s in 2011, pressuring the company to demand it’s milk suppliers agree to the workers’ demands. Enrique Balcázar, a Vermont activist with Migrant Justice, explained the strategy, saying “Ben & Jerry’s is one of the biggest purchasers of milk in Vermont. They’ve made a powerful brand by advertising that their products are fair trade. Milk with Dignity will make sure that this trade is truly fair.”

Before Milk with Dignity, dairy farm workers who worked to supply Ben & Jerry’s stores worked in undeniably inhumane conditions. Migrant Justice was formed in 2009 after a Vermont farmworker named José Obeth Santiz Cruz was killed on the job when his clothes got caught in a mechanized gutter scraper. Another worker was sprayed in the eye with chlorine after glass milk bottles exploded and the room he worked in had to be cleaned. Workers were sleep deprived because they had to wake up to milk the cows at midnight. There were often 12 to 14 hour shifts assigned consecutively without a day off in between. Housing for workers were barns and unheated trailers, despite long, freezing Vermont winters.

Migrant justice activists protested outside of Ben & Jerry’s stores in 16 cities, in 2015. “Ben & Jerry’s has stood up for cows (no RBGH), for chickens (cage-free agreement with Humane Society), and for international farmers (free trade). They’ve pledged support for climate justice, for Occupy Wall Street … So, after four years of us educating them about farmworker human rights abuses in its supply chain, it’s time Ben & Jerry’s stands up for the rights of the same farmworkers who put the cream in ice cream,” Balcázar said, during the protests.

In June 2015, Ben & Jerry’s publicly agreed to adopt the Milk with Dignity program, but by 2017 still had not signed the contract. Workers continued to protest. It was October 2017 when Ben & Jerry’s finally signed the contract. In the fight for this decision, three of the lead worker-organizers were arrested and suffered through deportation hearings, activists were arrested at the protests, and one lead worker-organizer was deported, separated from his American wife and daughter. All this, for the workers to win: minimum wage payment, one day off per week, at least eight hours between shifts, and a guarantee that worker-housing will include electricity, clean running water, and a real (non-straw) bed.

Racist prejudice and economic oppression

While Ben & Jerry’s might pay a living wage, to Vermont workers at least, the company still profits off of the exploitation and powerlessness of their workers, just to a lesser degree than many other corporations. They devalue labor by functioning as a hierarchical corporation: paying owners the most for completing the least, or no, labor; paying executives highly for their labor; and paying workers relatively little for their labor. They also do this by denying workers any decision making power in this hierarchy by fighting unionization and failing to become worker-owned. 

Liza Featherstone of Dissent Magazine reflected on Ben & Jerry’s labor history, writing “even Wal-Mart is now a member of Business for Social Responsibility. The buzzword itself is revealing. ‘Responsibility’ suggests that, like parents or benign dictators, people running businesses should make compassionate and sensible use of power-while the fact of that power should go unchallenged.”

To devalue labor is to contribute to racist oppression, as hundreds of years of racist policies have ensured that people of color are disproportionately represented in the working class. In other words, to contribute to the economic oppression of any group is to contribute to the spread of discriminatory views of this group, which will necessarily be invented to justify this oppression. Just as classist views, like believing poor people are lazy or unintelligent, are invented to justify continued poverty alongside massive wealth. By maintaining the oppression of their workers, Ben & Jerry’s contributes to the creation of racist ideas to justify this oppression. 

Ibram X. Kendi, founder of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and author of How To Be An Antiracist, summarized the economic interests responsible for the concept of race, and the concept of racial hierarchy. The concept of generalizing specific ethnic groups into large ‘races’ was first utilized in the first European book on Africa. The Chronicle and Discovery and Conquest of Guinea was written to justify the African slave trade Prince Henry of Portugal introduced to Europe. The author, Gomes de Zurara, justified the exploitation of slavery by deciding that all Africans “had no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in a bestial sloth.”

Racist prejudices, and the social construction of racial categories, exist to justify unjust hierarchy; like the hierarchy of racialized American capitalism. American capitalism, which is built on the legacy of slavery and the subsequent racist policies built to prevent Black people from acquiring capital, has created severe economic inequities which reinforce white supremacy. 

White households are currently 13 times wealthier than Black households, in the United States. It is clear this power dynamic is reinforced and expanded by modern corporations, it is not simply a relic of the past: the wealth gap between white and Black families has grown wider since the Great Recession.

In Kendi’s words, a “racist power creates racist policies out of raw self-interest; the racist policies necessitate racist ideas to justify them.” These racist ideas “redirect the racial inequities” away from these self-interested policies, and onto individual victims of these policies. More simply, as Black radical Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks racist oppression is “first, economic,” then white people and people of color alike internalize and accept racist ideas. 

It is these same racist ideas which motivate American police officers to commit extrajudicial acts of violence against Black people, like George Floyd. 

By praising corporations like Ben & Jerry’s for making competent statements on social justice, we allow them to obscure their own important role in enforcing American white supremacy, to paint government as the only party with influence over disempowered and marginalized citizens, and to use the positive self-image they cultivate to stop internal fights for labor justice. 

 


 

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