Signs in hand, eight fifth-graders-turned-social-activists were nervous as they stepped onto the Green Line on Sunday. They had never led a protest before.
They arrived at a Wendy’s near Downtown Crossing around 1 p.m., and they joined a crowd of 50 people including their families and others to stand in solidarity with Florida tomato pickers.
The students formed a picket line, urging customers to boycott the fast-food chain unless it agrees to pay a higher price for tomatoes — a move advocates say could boost farm wages. “Hold the burgers, hold the shakes,” they chanted. “A penny more is all it takes!”
The demonstration, known as the children’s labor protest, is an annual rite of passage for the fifth-grade class at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice in Brookline.
Each year, students learn about the history of Jewish immigrants’ involvement in the labor movement, then they take up a modern issue of workers’ rights.
“I think it’s a great way of teaching these issues and demonstrating how you can take action,” said Jenny Silverman, education director at the center. “It shows how they can be powerful.”
Soon after the students arrived, a man came out of the Wendy’s and yelled, “Stop blocking the [expletive] door.”
The kids yelled louder and eventually handed him a letter.
He took it, but he wouldn’t let them inside the restaurant.
The man declined to comment. Heidi Schauer, a spokeswoman for Wendy’s, said the report that the man had cursed was “concerning,” and she pledged to look into it.”
The student demonstration supported an organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
For several years, the group has pressured Wendy’s to sign onto the “Fair Food Program,” which sets standards for the treatment of farm workers and requires buyers to pay a premium on tomatoes to boost wages. Chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum! Brands, and Subway have joined.
Schauer referred questions about the protest to a statement posted online.
“We support the goals of any organization that seeks to improve human rights, but we don’t believe we should pay another company’s employees — just as we do not pay factory workers, truck drivers or maintenance personnel that work for our other suppliers,” the statement reads.
Parents said they were proud to see the students’ dedication.
“I’m delighted,” said Nora Osman, 45, of Brookline, whose son Reuben Pomerantz, 10, also participated in the protest. “It’s important that he learns early about civic responsibility and his First Amendment rights.”
To learn about the plight of farm workers in Immokalee, Fla., the class got a chance to Skyped with members of the coalition.
The kids saw pictures of the hands of someone who picks crops and learned about working conditions in the fields, said Sunday School teacher Mirah Sand, 26, of Jamaica Plain.
“It’s the biggest joy of my life to be able to stand with them and have these conversations,” Sand said.
Students at the protest said they were moved by the conversation with the coalition.
“I believe in justice for everyone,” 11-year-old Jasper Milstein said. “Those workers in Immokalee are not treated well. They’re not paid enough.”
Jay Rochberg, 10, of Cambridge said he worries that people are not aware of the difficulties faced by workers.
“It’s one thing to see these issues with garment workers in 1912,” Rochberg said. “It’s another thing to see it now in 2016 with farm workers who can’t support their families because corporations like Wendy’s can’t pay a penny more per pound.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.