Forty years after Harvest of Shame, Edward R.
Murrrow's great documentary on the exploitation of migrant
workers, the shame endures. Now overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking,
the nation's estimated 1.5 million farmworkers, are the most
vulnerable laborers in the U.S. Federal legislation excludes them
from many rights most other workers have, such as a minimum wage,
overtime pay and the ability to engage in collective
bargaining.North Carolina farmworkers are currently in the
spotlight. An estimated 100,000 migrant workers are brought to the
state each year to pick cucumbers, sweet potatoes, watermelons and
tobacco on 22,000 farms. An organizing effort by the Toledo-based
Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) includes a boycott of Mt.
Olive Pickle Company, the Southeast's largest pickle producer.
Teams sent by the Agricultural Missions Office of the National
Council of Churches, the National Farm Worker Ministry and Human
Rights Watch have visited the area and reported on fear,
mistreatment, intimidation, wage manipulation and illness among
the workers. "I think dogs are treated better than we are," one
worker told the NFWM team.
In late October New York Times reporter Somnia Sengupta
visited a labor camp stuck behind a hog pen at the end of a dirt
road on a private farm. "The rooms inside these tin-roofed,
cinder-block cabins were lined with four or five beds each. Some
of the mattresses had lost their springy entrails. The laundry
space was no more than a metal wash basin outside. And the
concrete floors were strewn with dirty boots left behind, and
brochures that promised dreams on these hot bountiful fields.
'Your dollars working in Mexico,' a brochure from the North
Carolina Growers Association that recruits laborers . . . read in
Edgardo Valeriano, a Honduran-born physician and an outreach
worker for the area Primary Health Care Association, told the
Chapel Hill Herald-Sun (March 19) that only about five of
the 150 labor camps he had visited treated the workers properly.
"I've seen people sick from pesticides, people working at noon in
100-degree weather with no shade," putting in 14-hour days with no
overtime and one 15-minute break. "People who really believe they
are Christians cannot condone this situation," Valeriano told the
Few serious people deny that problems exist. The question is
what to do about them. That's where FLOC, headed by the
charismatic Baldemar Velasquez, comes in. After successfully
organizing farmworkers in Northern Ohio, FLOC turned its sight to
North Carolina several years ago. It recognized immediately the
difficulty of unionizing growers in a state the New York
Times called "famously inhospitable to unions."
FLOC brought with it an innovative and successful model worked
out in Ohio after eight years of testing and struggle with
Campbell Soup, Campbell's Vlasic pickle subsidiary and, later, H.
J. Heinz. In a now classic story (it was the basis for a 1986
Wharton School of Business case study), FLOC bypassed the growers
and concentrated on Campbell Soup, which is highly protective of
its family image. The extended boycott embarrassed the company
perhaps more than hurt its income.
The result in Ohio was the creation of a three-way contract
settlement. Campbell and Vlasic agreed to raise the prices paid
for tomatoes and cucumbers, asked the growers to participate in an
association, and told them to allow the farmworkers to vote on
whether to be represented by FLOC in a labor union. More than
7,000 workers now are. A commission chaired by former U.S.
Secretary of Labor John Dunlap oversaw the transition.
Tom Sachs participates in the Fremont (Ohio) Pickle Growers
Association that sells cucumbers to H. J. Heinz. After initial
skepticism 15 years ago, he now sees the arrangement as a win-win
for all sides. The prices went up, the growers' income went up,
the workers' wages went up. The workers agreed not to strike. The
farmers agreed not to lock them out. Housing is considerably
improved, in part though state subsidies obtained by FLOC.
"Communication is much better. We had little skills in dealing
with labor," Sachs said over the telephone. "The workers did not
know they could lodge complaints . . . Now complaints from either
side can go through the FLOC representative on-site."
In North Carolina FLOC has chosen to concentrate on Mt. Olive
Pickle Company, which employs 500 people year round and 800 in
peak season. Located at the intersection of Cucumber and Vine, it
has been for 75 years "the company" in Mt. Olive, a town of 4,500
about 70 miles southeast of Raleigh.
According to its Web site, Mt. Olive Pickle contributes
$250,000 a year to civic and social causes. It buys 100 million
pounds of cucumbers and peppers each year, about 35 percent from
North Carolina growers. It sells pickles under its own name in 30
states and produces pickles for Food Lion and Harris-Teeter
supermarkets under their brands.
Mt. Olive Pickle has been asked to do what Campbell Soup had
done: increase its prices to entice growers into an association
that would allow their workers to choose whether they want to be
represented by FLOC.
Mt. Olive Pickle has said repeatedly that it does not employ
farmers and that it cannot and should not dictate whom the growers
must hire. Which is precisely what Campbell Soup initially
"Mt. Olive controls everything else," says Ramiro Sarabia,
FLOC's North Carolina staff person, who worked in fields elsewhere
for more than 20 years. "They set the price before the growing
season. They supply the seeds. They dictate the pesticide. They
sometimes inspect the fields. Why not take on the labor
Company president William Bryan told me that Mt. Olive can't
force its growers, who harvest cucumbers only in June and
September (for four weeks each time), to accept unions. But Mt.
Olive buys some cucumbers from a grower in Ohio with a FLOC
contract. "We try to identify farm suppliers who meet or exceed
North Carolina's legal requirements for workers. We require our
suppliers to buy from growers who are registered and have been
inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor."
Raleigh Catholic Bishop Joseph Gossman, who joined with Toledo
Bishop James Hoffman to endorse the boycott, has talked with Bryan
a couple of times. "He has a reputation for taking good care of
his employees," Gossman reflects. "He takes no responsibility for
those who gather our food from the ground."
In the absence of response by Mt. Olive, FLOC proceeded in
March 1999 to launch a national boycott. More than 200 groups have
signed on, including the North Carolina and Ohio AFL-CIO; the
United Church of Christ; the Raleigh, Toledo, Cincinnati and
Richmond Catholic dioceses; the National Farm Worker Ministry;
Church Women United; and the Farmwork Ministry Committee of the
North Carolina Council of Churches.
Bryan, president of Mt. Olive for the past ten years, is an
indefatigable defender of Mt. Olive. He talks to all visitors,
initiates phone calls, speaks to church and community groups,
appeared at meetings in Florida and St. Louis in the past year.
Bryan attended the NFWM board meeting outside Rocky Mount last
June. He debated Velasquez before a full house at Raleigh's Pullen
Memorial Baptist Church in October.
When asked about the time he devotes to countering what he
considers to be unfair attacks, he responds, "I work for a great
company that deserves to be defended."
Bryan says the boycott has not hurt the company's income. Since
the firm is privately held, it is not possible to check. One
industry paper wrote that company profits were up 14.5 percent in
1999. But the boycott clearly consumes time and energy.
"Our company has offered to talk with and participate in
discussions about how to improve farmworker conditions with
farmers, workers, processors, public officials, church
representatives," Bryan said. "We have declined just one demand by
the union. Then some people say, we are not for fair treatment of
farmworkers. It's not true."
Mt. Olive's Web site says that Velasquez made "two specific
demands in order for us to avoid a boycott: 1) increase cucumber
prices by five percent; 2) ensure FLOC receives two-and-a-half
percent of the farmworker's wage as union dues."
Velasquez says that account twists the facts. "I've been
negotiating contracts since 1986. That was not a negotiating
session. I would never lay out proposals in such a setting. We
have a whole set of issues for which we negotiate. If Bryan wants
a proposal, we'll give him one."
While FLOC organizes the workers--Sarabia says more than 3,000
workers have signed cards asking for union authorization--many
congregations, civic groups, student organizations and others work
to build support for the boycott in the state. People leaflet
shoppers at area supermarkets weekly. Farmworkers visit churches.
Student groups march. The Duke Chronicle had such a lively
exchange about the boycott that Mt. Olive bought a quarter-page ad
presenting its case. A march from Mt. Olive to Raleigh, the state
capital, in the blistering heat in 1998 garnered considerable
Some church groups do not consider the boycott fair. The
Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina turned down a boycott
resolution a year ago. Bryan participated in the debate. In April
the Commission of Church and Society of the United Methodist North
Carolina Conference had a hearing, "Mediating Toward Justice for
All: The Pickle Industry," but took no action on the boycott. Some
neutral observers say the hearing was loaded with defenders of Mt.
Olive, including Bryan.
The New Hope Presbytery has delayed for more than a year
endorsement of a grant to FLOC by the Presbyterian Hunger Program,
the 30-year-old effort that gives $3 million a year to national
and international groups "working to alleviate hunger and
eliminate its causes." A January 20 meeting will bring presbytery
and Hunger Program personnel together to discuss the issue. If the
presbytery disapproves and the Hunger Program decides to go ahead
with the grant, which it can do, an appeal is possible.
Interestingly, the Maumee Valley Presbytery in Ohio appealed such
a grant to FLOC in the early 1980s. It lost. In 1990 the
presbytery supported a second grant wholeheartedly and later gave
a peacemaking award to Velasquez, Campbell and the Campbell's
Last February a Hunger Program hearing took place in the Mt.
Hope Presbyterian Church, where leaders from the Mt. Hope
community strongly defended the pickle company. Steve Frazier, the
pastor, told me he was deeply committed both to farmworker issues
and the growing Hispanic community. "But I am not sympathetic to
an unjust boycott to achieve a justifiable end." Citing good wages
and working conditions for a diverse workforce--49 percent black,
17 percent Hispanic, 34 percent white--he added, "Theologically
speaking, the pickle company is an agent of divine justice."
(Retired Presbyterian minister James McChesney, from Goldsboro,
has urged people to "buy and eat more [Mt. Olive] pickles.")
Bishop Gossman, on the other hand, feels "the cause is just.
Mt. Olive, like Campbell's, is a fair target. It would not be
easy, but Mt. Olive has the power to make a significant
In the meantime, national church bodies are taking notice. The
National Council of Churches passed a resolution at its November
assembly supporting FLOC's efforts to organize a union, calling on
Mt. Olive to negotiate with FLOC, and directed a team to visit the
area to "facilitate and monitor the status of contract
negotiations," reporting to the February Executive Board meeting
"for further action, including endorsement of a boycott if
necessary." Schedule permitting, NCC president Andrew Young will
join NCC General Secretary Robert Edgar and others on the
The General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist
Church sent a team, headed by Bishop Joel Martinez, to study the
situation. It could endorse the boycott at its March meeting if
negotiating progress is not made. John Thomas, president of the
United Church of Christ, which endorsed the boycott at its 1999
General Synod, says this is a "classic example of churches
standing by those left out of the economy, even during expansion."
He added that "Baldemar Velasquez has the wherewithal, the
charisma, the integrity to create justice."
It figures to be a long struggle. Still, Velasquez, winner of a
MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1989, is encouraged by what
has happened in the first two years of the boycott. "We are
further along in North Carolina than we were in year five in Ohio.
There we were starting from scratch and had to prove ourselves.
Now we have a track record. People will support grass-roots
organizing if they trust the organizers. And know we are going to
go the whole way. We are. We say to Mr. Bryan, 'You've got the
money, we've got the time.'"
Leon Howell, a writer in Silver Spring, Maryland,
frequently cover labor issues.