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Union leader brings organizing campaign to cucumber pickers

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Mount Olive, N.C.

Here "in the heart of pickle country" the stage has been set for what could emerge as one of the fiercest labor battles to hit North Carolina in recent memory.

One of the main players in the saga is the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, which employs 500 workers at its non-unionized Wayne County plant, located about 60 miles southeast of Raleigh, where agriculture is the mainstay and tobacco is king.

Another is Baldemar Velasquez, the founder and president of the Toledo, Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee -- FLOC -- the group that last month publicly announced plans to lead an effort to improve wages, living and working conditions for the estimated 7,000 migrant workers who harvest the state's annual cucumber crop.

On May 28, Velasquez and about 75 Hispanic workers and their supporters gathered near the main entrance of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. plant, which has been located at the corner of Cucumber and Vine streets since the 1920s. Annually Mt. Olive Pickle Company receives 45 million pounds of cucumbers from acreage in the Carolinas. Its pickle and pepper products are marketed in 18 states. North Carolina, with an annual average of about 20,000 acres planted in two growing seasons, ranks second in the nation to Michigan in cucumbers grown for pickle products.

Velasquez used the gathering to lay out his plan to take on the South's largest pickle company.

Although Mt. Olive doesn't directly hire farm workers, most of its cucumbers are grown under contract with area growers. So, says Velasquez, the cucumbers are in essence owned by Mt. Olive from the moment the seeds are sown.

Velasquez wants company officials to enter into a three-way labor agreement with farm workers and growers that will benefit thousands of the state's most disenfranchised workers, an option rejected by Mt. Olive.

The best interests of the workers, growers or the company are not achieved by "the intervention of outside parties," said Mt. Olive Vice President Larry Graham. "The labor union's intent is only to take money from the workers and the growers and the company."

Farm worker wages, which are usually based on volume, are too low and working conditions are usually poor, Velasquez said. FLOC wants pickle producers to use their influence to pressure growers to improve working conditions and raise wages for cucumber pickers.

Followed by reporters, Velasquez walked to the plant gate to deliver letters from several groups that have endorsed the FLOC effort, including the national AFL-CIO and the National Council of Churches.

Velasquez is a seasoned organizer. He led FLOC's two-decade effort in Ohio and Michigan that resulted in contracts with the Campbell Soup Co., among others.

FLOC, which maintains a small local office in nearby Faison, N.C., will probably have to develop lots of long-term relationships in North Carolina for its efforts to succeed. With the second lowest percentage of unionized workers in the nation, the state is not exactly friendly to organized labor.

"We do not believe that the people in North Carolina favor labor unions," said Graham, who will be working full-time to counter FLOC's efforts.

Graham said the company knows it has a formidable opponent in Velasquez. "We have many concerns because he is very good at what he does," Graham said. "He's a very experienced labor organizer, and our company is not experienced."

Velasquez said FLOC is prepared to stay in North Carolina until the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. agrees to labor talks with workers.

About 1,000 mostly Hispanic farm workers have already signed "union authorization cards" asking FLOC to represent them in the organizing effort, Velasquez said. "We're here to stay. We're not going away, and sooner or later somebody's got to deal with us."

Because federal labor laws offer few protections to farm workers, FLOC will probably have to use economic measures, such as a consumer boycott of Mt. Olive products, to gain leverage. How well such an effort will fare in the South is unknown. "We don't know what strategy he will undertake," Graham said. "We've prepared ourselves."

Msgr. George Higgins, a labor specialist in Washington who has worked with Velasquez, said FLOC will have a tough row to hoe in North Carolina. "The fact that he's going into the South is a significant move," Higgins said. "It hasn't been done before in that part of the South."

Higgins said North Carolina is "nonunion and antiunion," and that FLOC faces an uphill battle. "Ohio and Michigan, after all, are strong union states, and it took him a long time to get a foothold there," Higgins said. "I would predict it will be a long, long fight."

Velasquez, who has already garnered some support among state labor and church organizations, said a letter-writing campaign to the company is underway, with a consumer boycott on the horizon. "We're going to have to come back to them with stronger voices, maybe a little louder each time we come back," Velasquez said. "As I told the people of Mount Olive, we're not here to muddy the water so much that we can't drink out of it. The industry is important to us because we want to make our living in the industry. We're not here to destroy the industry. We're not here to put it down. We're not here to tell them how to run their business. We're saying that there are some issues that need to be addressed. We think that we can help with those issues."

Velasquez also sees the effort in North Carolina as a way to prevent pickle producers from abandoning the Midwest for the nonunion South.

Several clerics and religious leaders came to last month's rally, including representatives from the North Carolina Council of Churches and the Raleigh diocese.

Theresa H. Aldahondo, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Raleigh diocese, said she came to Mount Olive to "defend the right and the dignity of the workers. It's just a question of justice. It's a Catholic issue."

Fr. H. Charles Mulholland, who has been involved in Hispanic ministry for more than 20 years in the Raleigh diocese, said, "I think that we're following the social teaching of the church. People should be represented in dealings with management. It's an American way too, as well as being a Catholic way, that people have a chance to speak of their needs."

Raleigh Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, who did not attend the rally, said the Catholic church has supported the right of workers to organize for more than 100 years.

"Our church believes that laborers have a right to organize," the bishop said. "Should they desire to do so, that's their choice, not management's choice."

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997