Farm Workers Rally to Keep Pressure on Mt. Olive Pickles

"Se puede?" (Can we?) "Sí, se puede!"
United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, left, joined hundreds of demonstrators in support of the Farm Labor Organizing committee's boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles. Photo: Rico de La Prensa Newspaper.
(Yes, we can!) Over 600 demonstrators took up this chant at a boisterous rally outside the Toledo, Ohio headquarters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee on March 26. Held on the third anniversary of FLOC's boycott against the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the event reflected the union's resolve to sustain and escalate the boycott.

Mt. Olive Pickle Co., the South's largest pickle producer, has refused to negotiate a union contract with the immigrant workers FLOC represents. Listening to descriptions of dismal working conditions, community members and representatives from several unions (including HERE, the Laborers, UFCW, UNITE, UAW, SEIU, and the Teamsters) responded enthusiastically to FLOC's call to keep the boycott alive.

PUTTING A FACE ON STRUGGLE

Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC's founder, introduced Bernardina Antonio Alberto, the rally's featured speaker, to a pre-rally gathering of over 400 high school students representing 14 schools. Velasquez described recruiters who go to Mexico to find desperate people willing to do "stoop labor" in U.S. fields through the government's H-2A or "guest worker" program.

With the help of a translator, Alberto told the students she had been very happy when her husband, Raymundo Hernandez, found work in the United States. She thought he was going to make more money than he could in Mexico, and this might mean they could afford to put in running water.

Instead, Hernandez died during his first few days working in North Carolina, after excessive exposure to toxic pesticides. Velasquez said that this is just one example of the mistreatment of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina, and added, "The Mt. Olive Company can fix that. It's simple. We should extend the same protections to these workers as to any other workers in America."

Velasquez, a minister, reminded his audience that the Bible teaches to "Love thy neighbor," adding, "We get separated because we don't look like each other. It doesn't say, 'Love your neighbor only if he looks like you, talks like you, and lives in the same community.'"

Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the South's largest pickle producer, has refused to negotiate a union contract with the immigrant workers FLOC represents.

He exhorted the crowd to attend the next boycott action, a demonstration on April 13 at the company's factory in Mt. Olive, North Carolina. Later, he warned that in contrast to the warm Toledo reception, residents of Mt. Olive, might respond to the demonstration there with hostility.

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Asked what she would consider "justice," Alberto replied, "Justice would be if this doesn't happen in the future. This was a great loss. I want it to not happen again. Someone should stop this and make sure all immigrant workers get fair and just treatment in the United States."

WHY CONTINUE THE BOYCOTT?

When asked this question, Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president and son-in-law of UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez, observed, "We need to keep reminding people, but once a boycott gets started, it's hard to stop. The longer it goes, the more the company will be tainted."

Toledo mayor Jack Ford simply quoted Chavez: "The only time you lose a boycott is if you end it prematurely."

Nick Wood, FLOC's national boycott organizer, pointed to FLOC's eventually victorious, eight-year boycott of the Campbell Soup Company. This boycott led, in 1986, to the first three-party labor agreement in the U.S., between the company, the tomato growers who sold to the company, and tomato pickers represented by FLOC.

"Campbell," Wood explained, "was our foot in the door. When we get Mt. Olive, the floodgates will open for us and other unions. Boycotts are long and difficult. When you actually win one, companies realize boycotts can be won, and they don't want to be boycotted. There can be a domino effect.

CRITICAL MASS

"If we get just one percent of the population to support the boycott, that number of people could win it for us. We don't need everyone to boycott, but we need a critical mass."

Wood praised the nine-year boycott that got NORPAC, a food processor and cooperative owned by 250 growers, to agree to work on developing labor relations guidelines with Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (PCUN). But he believes PCUN called off the boycott too soon. According to Wood, "Though PCUN does have an agreement from NORPAC to negotiate, they have no more leverage because they called off the boycott. And now there's a legislative movement in Oregon to prohibit farmworkers from bargaining collectively."

Wood emphasized, "FLOC will boycott Mt. Olive until we have a contract signed."