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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

Migrant workers travel to protest in N. Carolina

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Santiago Rafael is named for an angel and a saint, so it's no wonder he has a strong sense of what is just, right, and wrong.

“I am an activist, an organizer, and have been for a long time,” said the 26-year-old Mexican migrant worker. “In my home in Oaxaca, I was an activist.”

He's been in Ohio for three years, he said, doing seasonal work in fields and factories. But he serves his “calling” as a part-time volunteer at the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a Toledo-based national union for migrant farmers. As such, he and about 15 other members and officials boarded a bus yesterday for Mount Olive, N.C., home of the Mount Olive Pickle Co.

Organizers hope 4,000 or more people will rally in a park in the middle of town this afternoon to “demand justice for the workers who pick cucumbers on farms that supply the pickle company,” Mr. Rafael said.

FLOC represents more than 7,000 migrant workers in Ohio and Michigan, and is allied with AFL-CIO and Black Workers for Justice. In 1999, FLOC called for a boycott of Mount Olive pickle products after company officials refused to negotiate contracts for about 3,000 FLOC-represented workers.

For their part, Mount Olive officials say the laborers are choosing the wrong target, and contracts should be worked out between the workers and the farmers; that the pickle-packer has no say in how each farmer treats or pays his pickers.

But FLOC contends the manufacturer can influence the growers, and a three-way contract would be a “win-win” situation for all parties. FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez said the three-way contract system has worked in northwest Ohio since the 1980s at the Campbell Soup Co.

“It's a tight relationship. If the company says `change,' the farmers will change,” Mr. Rafael said. He cited conditions common at some huge farms: rundown and overcrowded migrant housing and brutal conditions for workers in the fields. He recalled Urbino Ramirez, a traveling harvester who died of heatstroke in a North Carolina field in 2001.

“The farmer didn't provide water to them out there. And when he collapsed, Mr. Urbino was denied medical treatment,” Mr. Rafael said. “We know it doesn't have to be this way.”

Mr. Rafael said individual workers are victims but when thousands gather together, they are brothers to one another and a powerful presence their opponents must recognize.



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