Mt. Olive: Blood on the Cucumbers

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Nick Wood

URBANO RAMIREZ LEFT his wife and five children in the state of Guerrero, Mexico to find jobs in the fields of North Carolina. On June 26, 2001 he arose at 6:00 in the morning to pick twenty-two buckets of cucumbers on a farm that sells its produce to a supplier for the Mt. Olive Pickle Company.

After lunch Ramirez began working in tobacco when he got a severely bloody nose. He was simply told to go take a break. In his delirious state he wandered off. No search party was sent out, nor was a missing person’s report filed. His body was found ten days later in the woods near a field.

Upon the request of his family, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) publicized the case and raised almost $6000 to send to Urbano Ramirez’s family. The Mt. Olive Pickle Company reacted by saying that they only got six percent of their cucumbers from the supplier, had no direct contact with the farm, and “it is regrettable that FLOC appears to be exploiting Mr. Ramirez’s death to serve its union organizing efforts.”

The Department of Labor also investigated the case and found that water was not provided to the workers and that they were sold beer and soda instead, among other violations. The farmer was fined $1800.

A Question of Dignity

On March 17, 1999 FLOC called a consumer boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the second largest producer of pickles sold on the shelves of U.S. grocery stores and the holder of the largest market share in the Southeast.

Eastern North Carolina cucumber pickers are calling on the Mt. Olive Pickle Company to recognize their responsibility and negotiate a just contract with farmers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), AFL-CIO.

Over 300 organizations have endorsed the boycott at this point, including the AFL-CIO, United Church of Christ, five Catholic Bishops, Black Workers for Justice, and Solidarity.

Actions continue around the country at grocery stores including Kroger, Wal-Mart, Publix, Harris Teeter, Food Lion and others. Over 130 Kroger stores have dropped this anti-union product from their shelves and pressure is being applied on many others to do the same thing.

Tens of thousands of migrant farm workers come to North Carolina every year from Mexico, Guatemala, Florida and other points south to do the work that is the backbone of the state’s economy. They pick cucumbers, tobacco, sweet potatoes, and many other fruits and vegetables for the tables of America.

Despite the importance of their labor, those who toil on the farm remain among the most mistreated and exploited groups of workers in the country. They are denied the government-sanctioned right to organize, minimum and overtime wages, and many of the other meager protections afforded other U.S. workers.

Many are victims of the anti-immigrant sentiment that runs rampant throughout the country and are neglected by government agencies charged with regulating their work environment.

Yet, in spite of the extreme poverty in their daily lives, inhumane attitudes among the larger population, and their exclusion from basic governmental protections, farm workers in North Carolina and around the country are standing up for their rights and demanding basic human dignity.

Farm workers in Immokalee, Florida are calling on the fast food giant Taco Bell to pay a living wage for their produce. Workers in Oregon are fighting for recognition of their union, PCUN (see ATC 99, July-August 2002). California farm workers — organized by the United Farm Workers — are demanding that Pictsweet Mushrooms sign a contract.

The Formation of FLOC

This past May, Mamerto Chaj Garcia was picking pickles for a labor contractor in a farm that sells to a Mt. Olive supplier. He experienced stomach pains and asked his boss for medical attention. He was told that he was probably drunk and should take some aspirin.

The pain worsened and he eventually had to get a cab to take him to the hospital where they removed his appendix. Several weeks later he and his eight coworkers were fired for no reason and kicked out of the trailer they were living in. They were owed several days wages at the time.

The workers came to FLOC and, together with about thirty other FLOC members, went out to confront their boss, who was also reported to have routinely threatened them with a pistol. As a result of this direct action, the workers got literally every dime that they were owed.

FLOC was founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez as a response to the terrible working conditions that he and his family faced while working as migrant farm workers in Northwest Ohio.

After initial success, FLOC realized the limitations of only calling on the farmer for recognition. The farmers based their wage on what they were paid for the crop by the large food processors. Consequently, the union began to target these food processors in their attempt to improve conditions.

In 1979, after a strike in the fields proved unsuccessful, a national consumer boycott was called against Campbell Soup Company. The company initially denied responsibility on the pretext that it did not directly employ farm workers — the same evasion that Mt. Olive attempts to use even today.

But after an eight-year campaign, Campbell came to the table with farm workers and growers and signed the first tri-party labor agreement in U.S. history. The contract nearly doubled wages for the workers, created a program to improve migrant housing, and most importantly instituted a grievance procedure that finally gave the workers a voice on the job without fear of retribution.

The Campbell victory sent ripples through the agricultural industry in Northwest Ohio. Eventually, Vlasic, Deans Foods, Heinz and several smaller companies signed contracts with FLOC, bringing the union’s membership to over 7,000 workers at present.

Boycott Mt. Olive

Despite great gains in working conditions in Ohio, the battle continues. Companies began seeking alternative sources for their cucumbers in cheaper labor markets. They began going South to avoid the prices of union labor existing in the northern United States.

In a trend consistent with many other industries in this age of global subcontracting, the pickle companies began buying less from Ohio and more from North Carolina, Latin America, even India and Sri Lanka.

FLOC membership recognized this and in 1994 passed a resolution urging the leadership to organize the South. In 1997, after more than 2,000 union cards were signed, FLOC approached the Mt. Olive Pickle Company about brokering a similar agreement to those already in place in Ohio.

The company refused, citing the tired old arguments espoused by Campbell Soup in the 1980s. Mt. Olive executives argued that they did not employ farm workers and thus shouldn’t get involved. For two years FLOC rallied public support, generating a letter writing campaign and raising awareness. Yet the company would still not budge.

In 1999, at the time the boycott was called, workers complained of sub-poverty wages — often below the minimum wage, cramped and unsanitary housing, and a general lack of respect of their dignity in the workplace.

These same conditions still exist today, although the company claims that they’ve made steps to improve things.

Betrayed by Duke

In November 2001 members of Duke’s Students Against Sweatshops approached the university administration and asked that Duke observe the Mt. Olive boycott. The university had previously agreed to “boot” Taco Bell off campus in response to the demand raised by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

On March 21, 2002 — during FLOC’s National Week of Action around the boycott anniversary — Duke University President Keohane announced that the university would officially honor the boycott. This victory, however, was short lived.

Unlike the Taco Bell case, Mt. Olive Pickle Company officials used their considerable clout to pressure the university to reverse their decision. Once school let out and students left the campus, President Keohane began meeting with the company on a regular basis.

FLOC offered to put administration in contact with farm workers three times; each invitation was declined. Keohane did, however, visit the Mt. Olive Pickle plant and a farm labor camp of one of its suppliers, one noted for abnormally good conditions.

During this visit, Keohane’s only contact with workers, she neglected to bring along a translator that would have made it possible to communicate with them. FLOC has also learned from these workers that they were told of her visit three days in advance and made to clean up.

As unilateral and top-down as the process was in this case, the conditions that Mt. Olive had to meet in order for their product to return to Duke University were even more absurd. The company agreed to get their growers to sign statements affirming that they are following the law.

Of course this merely puts in writing what the company has claimed all along — never mind that violations still occur.

Duke University and the company also agreed to “work cooperatively to approach leaders in the North Carolina state government to suggest possible steps that could be important in improving the lives of farm workers.”

This statement is very vague, yet also representative of the paternalism that is rampant when it comes to workers’ rights in this state, country and world. However even such vague and paternalistic statements show the impact FLOC and its supporters have been able to bring against Mt. Olive Pickle Company.

In this action both the university and the company showed their true colors. If they really wanted to improve conditions they would have consulted the workers who face them day in and day out.

Despite the attempt of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company and others to claim either that they know best for the workers or that conditions aren’t all that bad, the workers and their many supporters know that a contract is the only way to get workers basic rights. Tragedies and abuses on the farms will continue until the workers are empowered to control their own lives.

An Optimistic Future

In July of this year, a group of nineteen migrants from Chiapas came to FLOC after they had been fired, left out in the field, and had their lights, phone and water cut off. A party of more than fifty FLOC members drove out to the boss’s house and demanded repayment for their mistreatment.

The crew leader called the farmer and he agreed to meet with FLOC and the workers. The farmer delivered their back pay to them at the FLOC office, paid for the cab fare, and the crew leader agreed to pay for the food they lost when he cut off their lights. It was as happy an ending as one could expect in the current system of farm labor in Eastern North Carolina.

These instances represent both the tragedy of the current status quo and the possibility for change through militant worker action combined with the support of people of conscience in the larger community.

Obstacles exist in the anti-union sentiment that is a part of culture in the American South, and the desire of those in power to work together to keep the workers disempowered and impoverished.

Yet greater obstacles have been overcome in the past and will in the future. The FLOC campaign is gearing both in the fields and in the cities in support of the Mt. Olive Boycott.

FLOC has made a permanent commitment to the workers who harvest the cucumbers Mt. Olive processes, and indeed to workers doing that work for other companies. Despite the setbacks that are a part of any campaign, the power building among the workers will prevail in this fight.

Hasta La Victoria!!

ATC 102, January-February 2003