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Mushroom plant, union settle 4-year dispute

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Tallahassee, Fla.

Four years after they were arrested during a lunchtime demonstration, all 24 fired Quincy Farms mushroom plant workers are back on the job.

United Farm Workers, the union representing the laborers, and Quincy Farms management quietly negotiated an agreement settling the dispute that began in March 1995. The company has insisted the negotiations remain confidential.

Bowing to pressure from religious leaders, including the Florida Catholic Conference and the Florida Council of Churches, and a pending legal judgment, the company finally agreed to negotiate a contract.

The dispute had attracted the attention of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and national labor groups. Boycotts began and union pickets and sympathizers marched outside the mushroom plant and supermarkets across the South.

During the tenure of CEO Rick Lazzarini, management stood firm in its refusal to negotiate with union organizers. With Lazzarini’s dismissal in January, the company made conciliatory overtures to the union, helped along by an economic downturn for the mushroom operation.

According to attorney Rob Williams of Florida Legal Services, who represented the arrested workers, all indications were that Quincy Farms would have faced significant financial penalties in a summary judgment the union expected to win. By agreeing to negotiate with the union, the company avoided a declaration of liability for its actions against the workers who demonstrated.

David Villarino, UFW spokesman, confirmed that the union filed a class action suit for unlawful discharge. He said the action was postponed when the company offered all fired workers their jobs back.

Quincy Farms chief financial officer and interim CEO Bob Weatherford confirmed there is “ongoing discussion” with the union. He said the talks with the union and workers are “congenial.”

“We’re forming a kind of partnership with the United Farm Workers for the benefit of both,” Weatherford said.

Frank Curiel, the local UFW organizer, said that a turning point for the union came when Pizza Hut canceled its contract with Quincy Farms following a letter from the Florida Council of Churches. According to Curiel, 18 percent of the plant’s weekly production went to Pizza Hut.

Weatherford said the contract loss was insignificant and production has “turned around,” at the plant.

Villarino noted, “We’re not out to put anyone out of business.” He said now that workers are back on the job, it appears production and sales are up. “Mutual prosperity is the goal,” he added.

Curiel said the company and the union will make a joint announcement ending the labor dispute and “undo the boycott” at simultaneous news conferences in Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., where mushroom boycotts were organized. The date for the news conferences had not been determined as NCR went to press.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999