On Monday afternoon I was one of about one hundred and twenty people who gathered outside of the new Wendy’s flagship restaurant in Dublin, OH. We were there to bring pressure on the nation’s second largest fast food chain, asking that they join the Fair Food Program, which eleven other major corporations, including four of the big five fast food chains, have signed onto. The Fair Food Program provides a wage increase for farm workers and enforces a Code of Conduct among the companies that have signed onto it, which has been instrumental in reducing human rights abuses in the fields. After talking to some very kind and decent Dublin police officers, a Wendy’s executive, Bob Bertini, came out to talk to us. He tried to cover his anger and impatience under a patina of cheerfulness, but it was obviously there. One of our spokespeople, Jessica Shimberg, asked him why Wendy’s was unwilling to sign-on to something that has helped so many people, and been embraced by the company’s competitors, especially when Wendy’s is usually a very good corporate neighbor, and the values of their founder, Dave Thomas, should lead them to embrace opportunities for justice and civil welfare like the Fair Food Program.
I participated in this action during a week in which I’ve been delving deep into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book The Bully Pulpit, which is about the progressive era. Many of the political leaders in that era were rich men. But they were men who were raised within a very specific ethic of wealth. They thought that wealth was only justified if it could do good for one’s community. They were also intellectually curious men. Teddy Roosevelt, especially, read everything and delved into everything. He began his time in the New York legislature as someone who was indifferent to the plight of the workers. He was from the monied, property owning class, and believed that it was a property owner’s civil right to do whatever they wanted with their land and wealth. But when he began to hear reports about the conditions of cigar makers in the New York tenement factories, he made a deal with a social crusader. He would go on a tour of the factories, and if he found that the claims about abuse and maltreatment were true, he would support legislation to help the workers. The reports were true, and he began to change his opinion about the civil rights of landlords.
What would the world be like if corporate CEOs, such as Wendy’s Emil Brolick, woke up in the morning asking themselves ethical questions about their company’ wealth and influence? They would have to expand their understanding to realize that, in a global economy, everyone is in your community. Corporations are very good at conjuring an image of community. Their commercials show their customers, their ideal community, smiling and chatting with their employees, and enjoying their products with something close to rapture. But of course a community is more than just employees and customers. It’s more than those who live in the city or neighborhood in which a corporate office is located. In a global economy, the community is the world. And for Wendy’s, that means that their community includes the farm workers in Florida who provide tomatoes for their hamburgers, and who have seen a marked decrease in sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, and even modern slavery because of the Fair Food Program.
What is wealth for, if not for the benefit of the communities we live in? Moral psychologist Joshua Greene points out that, throughout time, generosity and cooperation within a community have benefitted the individuals who have those traits in abundance. Those who are incapable of generosity and cooperation have failed within their communities, not just morally, but also in terms of evolution. Using wealth for the benefit of one’s community also benefits the benefactor. At this moment in time, we all live in a community that encompasses the world. It might have surprised Wendy’s that a hundred and twenty Ohioans would show up in support of farm workers in Florida. But they’re going to have to adjust to the fact that community has expanded if they want to prosper, and they’re going to have to sign on to the Fair Food Program.