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Published: Thursday, 8/26/2004

FLOC seeks 10% raise for 2,000 picking cucumber crop

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo-based union representing 2,000 migrant workers picking cucumbers on about 65 northwest Ohio farms wants to renegotiate contracts for next summer's crop.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee hopes to reach a three-year contract with an increase of at least 10 percent over that period, union president Baldemar Velasquez said yesterday from North Carolina.

Union members are working this summer under contracts that have been extended for three years with the same pay scale. They call for cucumber pickers, almost all them Spanish-speaking migrants, to be paid $6.20 an hour for field work before harvest. During harvest, they are paid by the quantity they pick, with a guarantee of the $5.15 minimum wage. With a bumper crop, the fastest workers are paid up to $17 an hour in the peak of the season.

But when crops are mediocre, even the fastest pickers get about $8 an hour. Camp-style housing and medical and dental clinic visits are included.

FLOC's quest for a new contract is more complicated than most union campaigns. It intends to essentially bypass the farmers who employ the pickers and lobby the pickle processing companies that eventually buy the farmers' cucumbers.

Mr. Velasquez said farmers can't afford to pay pickers more unless they have contracts to sell cucumbers at higher prices. So FLOC will lobby the two companies that together buy 90 percent of the local cucumbers raised for processing: Vlasic, which is owned by Pinnacle Foods Corp., and Dean Foods Co.

Neither company returned calls to The Blade yesterday.

One farmer, Bryan Knepper, who raises 100 acres of cucumbers on his 2,500-acre farm south of Fremont, sat at the table with cucumber pickers and union leaders at a news conference yesterday.

He said that he considers FLOC to represent his interests as well in its attempts to get Vlasic and Dean to pay more for cucumbers. If FLOC would be successful, trickle-down economics would take effect.

Vlasic and Dean would pay more for cucumbers to what the industry calls station operators, which buy cucumbers from farmers, grade the cucumbers on quality, and send them to processors. The station operators then would pay the farmers more and the farmers would pay the pickers more, according to FLOC s plan.

Picking cucumbers in northwest Ohio under the current FLOC contract pays more than most farm field jobs that require hand labor in the United States, said Mario Carrada Hernandez, a cucumber picker who has also picked strawberries in Florida, blueberries in Oregon, and grapes and lettuce in California.

But it is also a long drive from southern states where most pickers work much of the year and picking cucumbers is harder, hotter work than many crops.

Mr. Hernandez said that if local wages would remain the same in northwest Ohio next year, he might work in North Carolina instead.

Even though pay rates are lower there, he would save the drive to Ohio and perhaps find an easier crop to pick, he said.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:jschmucker@theblade.comor 419-724-6102.



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