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Boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Co. ends

 


Sept. 17, 2004

By Bill Norton*

RALEIGH, N.C. (UMNS) - The boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Co. by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee-an action supported by the United Methodist Church-has ended with the signing of two agreements Sept. 16.

The United Methodist Church joined the boycott last spring following action by its top lawmaking body, the 2004 General Conference. The boycott called for collective bargaining to improve working conditions for farm workers in North Carolina.

"My thinking is we joined the FLOC boycott, and since it is over, then the church�s boycott of Mt. Olive has ended," said Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination�s social action agency.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the North Carolina Growers Association signed a collective bargaining agreement that covers an estimated 8,500 federal H-2A guest workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries who work on about 1,000 farms. It does not cover workers who may be in the state illegally.

In a separate agreement with the union to settle the boycott, Mt. Olive agreed to increase payments for cucumbers in North Carolina and Ohio by 2.25 percent annually for the next three years, to provide a 3 percent annual supplement to growers providing workers� compensation insurance coverage, and to expand its code of conduct for North Carolina suppliers and growers.

The Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is a labor union representing migrant farm workers. The North Carolina Growers Association�s members recruit workers under the federal H-2A program. Mt. Olive, a privately held corporation, has the second-best selling brand of pickles in the United States.

The union contract is believed to be the first in North Carolina agriculture and for an H-2A employer.

"This is a win-win for all parties," said Baldemar Velasquez, union president. "It is an historic triumph for migrant farm workers and their families on over 1,000 farms throughout the state of North Carolina, providing workers with a union-protected grievance process, allowing them to address wage/hour abuses, substandard housing conditions, unfair hiring practices and other abuses within the H-2A program."

Stan Eury, director of the growers association, said the agreement was the "most progressive agricultural worker/employer accord in the nation."

In answering a question about why his group signed the document, he said the public often did not understand the difference between the treatment of H-2A foreign guest workers supplied through the growers association and undocumented workers who are under the control of unscrupulous farm labor contractors.

Under the agreement, workers are not granted the right to strike. They do not automatically get higher wages from these agreements, unless they pick cucumbers for farmers supplying products to Mt. Olive.

"NCGA initiated discussions with the union because it saw an opportunity to strengthen its H-2A program," said Lynn Williams, spokesperson for Mt. Olive.

"In the past, Mt. Olive has been unable to resolve the boycott with FLOC because we believe collective bargaining should be a process between employers and employees. NCGA�s decision as an employer to negotiate with FLOC created an opportunity for us to resolve the boycott," Williams said.

"I am one pickle packer who is glad to be out of a pickle," said Bill Bryan, president of Mt. Olive. "It�s a big relief to have the boycott behind us so our full attention can be focused on packing quality pickles."

After the agreements were signed, the Rev. Bob Edgar, top staff executive of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA-which was also boycotting Mt. Olive-placed $20 in front of Bryan. "Let me be the first to purchase a jar of Mt. Olive pickles for myself and one for my colleague Jim Winkler at Church and Society," said Edgar, a United Methodist pastor.

From the time the boycott of Mt. Olive began in 1999 until it ended Sept. 16, the company said it took steps to address farm worker issues, such as creating a code of conduct and providing education and incentives for good farm employment practices by its suppliers.

It worked with the United Methodist Church�s North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference and United Methodist-related Duke University to address specific worker concerns. The company has commissioned and is helping fund the construction of new worker housing.

The Board of Church and Society is expected to take a formal vote at its Oct. 14-17 meeting to officially end its boycott of Mt. Olive.

Bryan, a member of Mt. Olive (N.C.) United Methodist Church, acknowledged the presence of United Methodist officials from the annual conference and the Board of Church and Society. In addition to Winkler, board members Laura Little and Charles M. Smith from the North Carolina Conference attended the signing.

Winkler said the board, which worked on the Mt. Olive situation for five years, will monitor progress on the agreements.

*Norton is director of communications for the United Methodist Church�s North Carolina Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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