Mutliflavor, not Multinational: Protesting the Corporate Takeover of Ben & Jerry's

Dressed as a clown and playing his banjo, Wavy Gravy (the man, not the ice cream flavor) serenaded close to 200 people protesting at the Ben & Jerry's scoop shop on San Francisco's Haight Street on Tuesday, January 25."Calling all cows, calling all cows, corporate land sharks are circling the scoop shops," he was quoted as saying on National Public Radio. "They want to scoop up Ben & Jerry's. We need to save it from this megamerger."At one point during the peaceful demonstration a police officer approached the crowd. Instead of dispersing the protesters he donned a fake pig nose, posed for a picture with Wavy Gravy and filled out a postcard supporting the Ben & Jerry's franchise owners' letter-writing campaign. He also grabbed a free ice cream cone.Similar rallies took place at Ben & Jerry's shops in Boston, Los Angeles, Montreal, Seattle and New York as part of a grassroots movement to save the Vermont-based ice cream maker from a corporate takeover. (Scheduled events in Baltimore and Washington D.C. fell through due to bad weather.)Efforts to keep the famously socially responsible company from heading the way of solely money-making ventures have been underway since December 2, when Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. announced it had received "indications of interest" from a number of potential buyers. Those interests came from Roncadin of Italy, the Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever, Swiss-based Nestle SA, and Britain's Diageo PLC, owner of Ben and Jerry's rival Haagen-Dazs.Ben & Jerry's, known worldwide for its funky ice cream flavors such as Cherry Garcia, Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey, has served as a model of "caring capitalism." The company gives away 7.5 percent of pre-tax profits to Vermont charities, advocates for progressive causes and environmental protection efforts, supports local dairy farmers and offers creative ways of sharing benefits with employees, customers and shareholders.Despite accusations that Ben & Jerry's has been less-than-socially responsible in the past few years (with charges such as preventing union organizing amongst employees, violating sewage disposal regulations and ditching its democratic wage structure), the more than 20-year-old company founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield has for the most part lived up to its goals of both making a buck and bringing about social change.Now, activists, concerned stockholders and many independent owners of the more than 200 Ben & Jerry's franchises across the country fear that corporate takeover will mean the end of such practices and the start of putting profits before principles."I was attracted to the idea of 'caring capitalism,'" says Roger Kaufman, owner of San Francisco's Haight Street Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shop. "I am committed to using business as a tool for social and environmental change. Both franchise owners and customers feel the same way: We don't want to see our company sold to companies that only care about their bottom line."So far Ben & Jerry's board of directors has not made a decision, nor have they issued an official word, about a potential sale. And founders Ben and Jerry, who, along with a third party control 47 percent of the company's stock, are observing an SEC-enforced silence on the matter.However, in an earlier interview on New Hampshire Public Radio, Ben Cohen said: "It's my strong personal belief that the only way that the company can actualize its progressive values is to remain independent, so within the bounds of my fiduciary duties as director, I am working hard to find a way to remain independent and return adequate value to the shareholders."But despite his good intentions, takeover bids are said to be close to two times the company's current market value, so shareholders could stand to make a great deal of money from the sale. And since Ben & Jerry's is in fact a public company, it's in a tricky situation. Its legal responsibility is not to make a delicious dessert, protect the planet or improve the world, but to make its shareholders the most moolah."This proposed corporate takeover shows how insane the drive for profits at any cost has become," said Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, one of the key groups in the Save Ben & Jerry's Coalition, which is organizing spearheading the grassroots efforts to fight a takeover. "The directors of the company could actually be sued if they decide to put the interests of their employees, family farmers and local communities above the interests of Wall Street."It would be a disaster if Ben & Jerry's were to sell out, especially to a multinational like Nestle that is renowned for its social irresponsibility," Benjamin continued. "We have so few companies that truly have a social conscience -- we can't afford to lose this one."So the campaign to fight the corporate sharks is on. In addition to a radio spot, online petitions and a "bigger isn't better" postcard campaign, Ben & Jerry's has been posted for sale on the online auctioneer eBay to attract attention to the efforts. Activists are asking concerned citizens to purchase shares of the company's stock, so they can vote on the matter. No timetable as to when the company will decide on the matter has been made public. To get involved go to www.SaveTheCowNow.com or www.savebenandjerrys.com.

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