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Published: Thursday, 9/16/2004

Local union, North Carolina pickler to sign contract; pact to affect 8,000 migrant workers

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

In what would be its first major organizing victory outside Ohio and Michigan, the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee today is expected to sign a three-way labor agreement in North Carolina with Mt. Olive Pickle Co. Inc., which has been the subject of a FLOC boycott since 1999.

At a ceremony in Raleigh, N.C., this morning, FLOC officials said they will sign a three-year labor pact with the North Carolina Growers Association, of Vass, N.C., which represents about 1,050 farms that raise 27 different crops ranging from cucumbers to tobacco, and a related agreement with Mt. Olive.

It's a marked change in business in mostly nonunion North Carolina. The contracts will cover the most union workers in the state, and FLOC will be its largest labor organization.

Covered by the agreements will be nearly 8,000 migrant workers who travel from Mexico to North Carolina, numbers that will more than double FLOC's membership rolls.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of FLOC, was ecstatic yesterday. "I knew eventually they would have to do something. I just never knew the timing would be this soon," he told The Blade.

Lynn Williams, a spokesman for Mt. Olive, said the company would not comment until the contract is signed.

How individual farmers feel is unclear. They can choose to opt out of the association, which is a party to the contract. But how those growers would be affected is uncertain.

The agreements cover migrants who harvest crops and work with visas issued under a U.S. Department of Labor program called H-2A. The growers association helps place H-2A workers at various farms as needed.

The pacts will provide the workers with specific wage rates for either hourly work or for how much is picked (depending on the crop), a formal procedure to address grievances, and third-party verification to ensure all parties are living up to the agreement.

FLOC was born in the fields of northwest Ohio nearly 35 years ago as a means to provide migrant workers with better working conditions and fair wages. Initially, it reached contracts with individual growers but became a formidable force in the industry when it reached an agreement in 1986 with Campbell Soup Co. and its subsidiary, Vlasic Pickle, and a group of growers to improve wages and working conditions.

The agreements in North Carolina follow a similar arrangement and similarly occurred after years of public boycotts and pressure tactics by the farm union.

In FLOC's agreement with Mt. Olive Pickle, the nation's second-largest pickle firm, the Mount Olive, N.C., company endorses the separate contract between the union and growers association and it provides economic incentives for the deal to occur.

Mr. Velasquez said that about 60 cucumber growers will get a 10 percent price increase for their crops they supply to Mt. Olive. That increase will be passed along in the form of wage increases for the 800 to 1,000 workers who work for those growers.

Those workers are paid $8.06 an hour, a federally set minimum wage rate for H-2A workers. Under the new pact, which raises pay rates, workers could earn up to $12 an hour. "It depends, but a good picker could earn that," Mr. Velasquez said.

Growers do not have to participate in the contract. However, those who remain in the association will be covered by the agreement and receive the crop price increases, said Stan Eury, director of the growers association.

The agreements do not prohibit farmers who are not part of the association from supplying Mt. Olive Pickle. At least a few suppliers now do not belong to the association.

David Rose, a sweet-potato and tobacco farmer from Nashville, N.C., said there have been rumors for months that a farm labor contract was in the works. He declined to say how many farmers might leave the association.

Still, Mr. Rose, of JB Rose Farms Inc., said the labor agreements likely will have an impact on all farmers.

The key provisions of the contracts were not necessarily wages.

Workers frequently complained of abuses by growers but were fearful to report them because they might be blacklisted and later denied a work visa, Mr. Velasquez said. The agreements provide a list of worker rights, including a hiring seniority system that the union will administer through a work office to be set up in Mexico.

"The pact goes from Mexico all the way to Ohio, so that will eliminate debate around blacklisting of workers," Mr. Velasquez said. "They'll be union members by the time they enter the U.S."

For the growers, there is a formal grievance system and third-party inspections to verify compliance, which should protect the farmers' image if they are treating their workers right, he said.

"The worst part of it for them is the terrible negative image that comes with these issues," the Toledo labor leader said. "They don't like the publicity."

In a statement, Mr. Eury agreed that credibility is important.

"Unfortunately the lines have been blurred between the treatment of H-2A foreign guestworkers and undocumented workers who are under control of unscrupulous smugglers and farm labor contractors," the statement said. "Our industry is continually judged as a whole by the misdeeds of a few."

The three parties began negotiating about six weeks ago at the behest of Mt. Olive, Mr. Velasquez said. The first hint became publicly known last month when FLOC said a large growers' association agreed to not meddle in the union's organizing activity.

After reaching agreement on key principles, details of the pact were worked out in about a week, Mr. Velasquez said.

Both Mt. Olive and the growers researched FLOC's previous labor agreements with growers for Campbell and Vlasic.

"They studied it and told us they could live with it," Mr. Velasquez said. "They had also called some growers in Ohio to see how it had worked up there. The growers gave them some positive feedback."

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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