As about 100 protesters marched outside the Cincinnati Music Hall on Thursday, three activists were looking forward to making their case for farm worker rights to Kroger shareholders at the company's annual meeting inside the music hall. But they were turned away at the door.
Nely Rodriguez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Claire Comiskey of Interfaith Action, and Mother Paula Jackson, Rector at Cincinnati's Church of Our Savior had legitimate proxies donated by Kroger shareholders, which in the previous four years gave CIW allies access to the annual meeting without incident. The CIW spoke at last year's meeting, urging executives and investors to join the CIW's Fair Food Program to ensure that farm workers who harvest the fresh produce sold in Kroger stores are paid fairly and not subjected to inhumane working conditions, sexual abuse, and forced labor.
This year, the delegation was told that their proxies would not be accepted without a letter of authorization from Kroger, an unprecedented requirement that organizers believe was targeted at keeping discussion of the Fair Food Program out of the shareholder meeting. "They were scrutinizing our materials without so much as giving a second glance to others," Nely Rodriguez said.
The rejection further energized the protesters outside the shareholder meeting, prompting them to march from the music hall to Kroger's headquarters on Vine Street. The delegation went into the headquarters lobby and asked to speak face-to-face with a Kroger official or an assistant. They were given a phone number to call to set up an appointment.
Paula Jackson placed two phone calls. After being placed on hold for a long time on both, "I explained who we are, why we're there, and what we tried to do, and that we just want to talk with someone or leave a message for the CEO of Kroger," she said. On both calls, the person on the other line said, "I'm sorry, you're breaking up. I can't hear you."
"We think that maybe they don't want to talk with us today," Rev. Jackson said.
In a statement prepared for the shareholder meeting, Jackson described how working conditions and labor practices are monitored under the Fair Food Program. "A third party monitoring body, the Fair Food Standards Council, audits 45 farm locations," she wrote. "In the last three years, it has interviewed 4,000 workers and fielded 600 complaints with rigorous and effective investigation."
Kroger is the second-largest grocery chain in the United States. Walmart, the largest, joined the Fair Food Program in January.