09/16/04 — Boycott against Mt. Olive Pickle finally over

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Boycott against Mt. Olive Pickle finally over

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on September 16, 2004 1:59 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- A labor union's nationwide boycott against the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. has ended after five years.

The company had been ostracized by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee on behalf of Hispanic farm workers. Although the pickle manufacturer does not hire farm workers, FLOC had insisted that the firm buy no cucumbers except those picked by union members.

But in an agreement announced today in Raleigh, the ban is lifted, and the pickle company has promised to increase prices to cucumber growers, help them pay workers' compensation insurance and encourage visitors on the farms.

Also, the N.C. Growers Association has agreed to unionize the "guest workers," who are legal, temporary workers brought into the country on a seasonal basis to pick cucumbers. The farm workers come into the country under a federal visa program called H-2A.

Jerry West of Fremont employs farm workers under the H-2A program, although he doesn't grow cucumbers. His people will become unionized, too, he said today. But the agreement is so new nobody knows what the result will be.

"Legal Aid was suing the association so much it would have had to close its doors, and that would have closed our labor source," he said. "It was a compromise, and if it works like it's supposed to, it will be a win-win situation. Adversity brings strange partners together."

The agreement authorizes employers to deduct union dues from workers' paychecks.

Leticia Zavala, organizing director at the Dudley office of FLOC, said she feels fulfilled. She has been with the Dudley FLOC for four of the five years of the boycott.

"Today, Mt. Olive Pickle, the N.C. Growers Association and FLOC will start working together to improve all of the conditions of workers -- working, living, wages, health care ..." she said. "It's great, a wonderful feeling."

Bill Bryan, president of Mt. Olive Pickle Co., said he is "one pickle packer who is glad to be out of a pickle."

He said the company is pleased to resolve the boycott with FLOC. Although he disagrees with boycott tactics, he said he respects the persistence and dedication that FLOC and its supporters gave to achieving their goals.

"I have high regard for the H-2A program championed by Stan Eury and the North Carolina Growers Association," said Bryan. He explained that the program offers workers additional employment protections and safe transportation across the U.S.-Mexican border. It also offers farmers a dependable and legally authorized workforce. He said H-2A is important to many farmers and farm workers in North Carolina.

But he said it would have been improper for his company to encroach on the relationship between his suppliers and their employees, as FLOC had demanded. The boycott ended with an agreement that did not require that.

Under the agreement, Mt. Olive Pickle Co. will:

*Expand its code of conduct for North Carolina growers. This will add language encouraging the growers to allow farm workers to receive visitors on their farms.

*Raise by 2.25 percent the prices paid to growers in North Carolina and Ohio. This increase will be applied annually for the next three years.

*Provide a 3 percent annual supplement to growers who provide their workers with Workmen's Compensation insurance.

The cucumber price increase and the price supplement for workers compensation together represent a cumulative increase of at least 10.1 percent over the next three years.

The boycott against Mt. Olive Pickle Co. has been the subject of controversy since it began. It was supported by the North Carolina Council of Churches and by the United Methodist denomination in North Carolina, even though Bryan is a member and benefactor of the denomination. Other organizations had condemned the boycott as unfair because the pickle company does not employee farm workers and was reluctant to make demands on its suppliers.

Mt. Olive is the nation's second largest pickle company. The company uses 120 million pounds of cucumbers and peppers annually that it buys from farmers in more than nine states and two foreign countries. About one-third of its fresh cucumbers come from North Carolina suppliers.

Bryan said the company respects union representation decisions that are reached by the suppliers and their employees, including an Ohio cucumber supplier, which has operated under a FLOC contract since 1997.

"Our company has purchased cucumbers in North Carolina for the past 78 years," he said. "We look forward to being a valued buyer of this state's produce well into the future."