When you think of Vermont, one of the first images that comes to mind are rolling green fields, dotted with grazing dairy cows. You then may think of some of the famous Vermont companies these cows provide milk for, such as Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Cabot Cheese. Do you ever think of the individuals who work tirelessly, usually for less than minimum wage and in terrible living and working conditions, to make sure these cows are milked and cared for? I bet you don’t. Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice is working to make sure that more people hear the voices of migrant farmworkers in the Vermont dairy industry.
Enrique Balcazar raising awareness about the Milk with Dignity program. Retrieved from http://www.jwj.org/milk-with-dignity-leader-takes-home-2018-discount-foundation-legacy-award
Balcazar came to Vermont from Tabasco, Mexico, when he was 17 years old to earn money to support his family. Upon his arrival, he was appalled by the living and working conditions that he and other migrant farm workers were subjected to. According to Balcazar:
The farmer had me working 12 to 15 hours a day, with no day off. At the end of my first week, my body aching from over 80 hours of hard labor, I received my first paycheck and couldn’t believe what I saw: $350, or just over $4 per hour. At that time, I had no idea what the minimum wage was, but I knew that it wasn’t fair pay for the work I had done. But when I tried to express my frustration to the farm owner, he simply told me that’s how much the job paid. (Balcazar, 2017, June 19)
Several months later, Balcazar was invited to attend a community meeting organized by Migrant Justice, a nonprofit organization that works to “build the voice, capacity, and power of the farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights” (Migrant Justice, n.d.a). Hearing the stories of other migrant workers motivated Balcazar to join the organization and work toward creating fair and dignified working conditions within the Vermont dairy industry.
Enrique Balcazar at the People’s Climate March in Montpelier, VT on April 29, 2017. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/q_4bAQzxBVA
Since he became an active organizer for his marginalized community, Balcazar has worked hard to achieve economic justice. An example of his work toward positive social change is the Milk with Dignity program. According to Migrant Justice’s (n.d.b) “About the Milk with Dignity Program” page:
The Milk with Dignity Program brings together farmworkers, farmers, buyers and consumers to secure dignified working conditions in dairy supply chains. The Program enlists the resources of food industry leaders to provide a premium for milk to participating farmers who agree to work towards compliance with the labor standards in the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct. The premium helps offset farms’ costs of compliance with the Code and rewards farms that comply.
About the Milk with Dignity Program. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/HUxTQb4Q2kc
Part of being a leader is figuring out how to disrupt the system you’re trying to change with minimal fallout in order to get to a place that’s better for your group (Raz, 2014, January 17). After years of research, which included surveying migrant workers about workplace and housing issues and talking to farmworkers in Florida about their Fair Food Program, Balcazar and his fellow activists discovered that they could successfully disrupt the Vermont dairy industry by devising a plan that benefits all stakeholders, not just the migrant farmworkers. Including all stakeholders is key because farmers are more likely to comply with the program and meet the needs of their employees if they receive benefits and recognition for their positive contributions. While the program is still in its infancy, it has already experienced success: in October 2017 Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream signed the first Milk with Dignity agreement in the state and as of August 2018, this ice cream producer requires all of the farmers in their Northeast supply chain (70 farms in both Vermont and New York) to join the program (Migrant Justice, 2018, August 2). These victories would not have occurred if Balcazar had not invested countless hours into advocating for himself and his fellow farmworkers. He was honored for his efforts by the Neighborhood Funders Group with the 2018 Discount Legacy Foundation Award (Hainey, 2018, May 29).
Part of Balcazar’s success can be attributed to his transformational leadership style; he is highly motivated, creative, and fully committed to migrant farmworkers’ human rights (Cherry, 2018). His passion for his work, coupled with his clear vision for how to best achieve economic justice, inspires his fellow migrant workers to stand up for themselves and their rights. Like any good leader, he embraces his fellow community members as equals and makes sure that all have a seat at the table (Sivers, 2010, Feb.). These qualities make Balcazar an effective leader within both Migrant Justice and the Milk with Dignity movements, thereby creating a more just Vermont for us all.
Balcazar, E. (2017, June 19). Why I’m Marching to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Plant. Retrieved from https://civileats.com/2017/06/16/why-im-marching-to-ben-jerrys-ice-cream-plant/
Cherry, K. (2018) Leadership styles: 5 major styles of leadership. Retrieved from https://www.explorepsychology.com/leadership-styles/
Hainey, E. (2018, May 29). Milk With Dignity Leader Takes Home 2018 Discount Foundation Legacy Award. Retrieved from http://www.jwj.org/milk-with-dignity-leader-takes-home-2018-discount-foundation-legacy-award
Migrant Justice. (2017, May 3). Enrique at Montpelier People’s Climate March[Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/q_4bAQzxBVA
Migrant Justice. (2018, July 25). Milk with Dignity – Migrant Justice[Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/HUxTQb4Q2kc
Migrant Justice. (2018, August 2). From Dream to Reality: Milk with Dignity Breaks Ground on over 70 Dairy Farms in Vermont and New York. Retrieved from https://migrantjustice.net/dream-to-reality
Migrant Justice. (n.d.a). About Migrant Justice. Retrieved from http://migrantjustice.net/about
Migrant Justice. (n.d.b). About the Milk with Dignity Program. Retrieved from http://migrantjustice.net/about-the-milk-with-dignity-program
Raz, G. (Host). (2014, January 17). Seth Godin: Can ordinary people become leaders? [Radio broadcast]. In TED Radio Hour. Washington, DC: National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/01/17/261096538/can-ordinary-people-become-leaders
Sivers, D. (2010, Feb.). Derek Sivers: How to start a movement [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement?language=en
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APA cite in text as: (Irons, 2019a)
APA cite in full References as: Irons, M. (2019a). Enrigue Balcazar leads the fight for dignified working conditions. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from https://wp.me/p4elXk-Ba
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Megan Irons is an educator, dog mom, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Senegal 2014-2016) from Vermont. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology/Sociology from Saint Michael’s College and is currently pursuing a degree in Nursing. In her spare times she enjoys cooking, listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and hiking with her pit bull terrier, Weezy.
View Megan’s other article about Social-Emotional Learning.