Organ of Alliance Maxist-Leninist (North America) $4.00
At 10 am on September 16 (Mexico’s Independence Day) the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), AFL-CIO signed historic and far-reaching agreements with the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) and the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the second largest pickle company in the country. This is the first time H-2A guest workers have formed a labor union, this is the largest single unionization ever in North Carolina, and this successfully concludes FLOC’s first campaign outside of its native Ohio. The agreements cover undocumented and documented immigrant workers working on a range of crops from late February to November. These are vulnerable workers and this victory is all the greater because of the odds against them. The victory also overturns the generally anti-union state’s shameful label of being the least organized state in the Union. The agreement with the NCGA opens all member farms – about 1050 – to FLOC organizers and covers about 8500 workers. Mt. Olive signed a neutrality agreement and agreed to increase what it pays for cucumbers to allow farmers and suppliers to improve worker housing and increase wages. This replicates the three-way agreement FLOC gained in Ohio to end independent contracting. Mt. Olive’s old argument against the three-way system was that more typical two-way contracts are used in Ohio now. About 3850 workers have joined the union, allowing union dues withholding by their employers.
FLOC (www.floc.com) was founded in Ohio in 1968 and has gained contracts eliminating the independent contracting farming system, which denied many benefits to farm workers, increasing wages by 100% in the decade after 1986, improving much of worker housing on union farms, protecting members from pesticide poisoning beyond EPA regulations, and creating the Dunlop Commission to enforce contracts. Much of this was won through a 7-year boycott campaign against Campbell’s Soup ending in 1986. FLOC represents about 4300 workers in Ohio and Michigan and gets 2.5% of wages as dues.
Mt. Olive has been boycotted for 5-and-a-half years since March 1999 to force the Company to negotiate with FLOC and farmers in a three-way process (which the Company said was an out-of-date and unpopular system). The Company said it was being unfairly scapegoated because it did not employ any farm workers, it tried to contract with law-abiding and just suppliers, it was not the largest buyer of the state’s cucumbers, and that it was being targeted because of name recognition. It claimed that suppliers met or exceeded federal, state, and local laws and were asked to not employ undocumented immigrants or children, to protect workers from pesticides, to provide healthy working conditions and housing, to not cheat workers, and to be equal opportunity employers. They also required suppliers to only buy from farmers whose worker housing was registered with the state’s Department of Labor and inspected before occupancy, something only Mt. Olive required. Mt. Olive purchases about $3.5 million dollars worth of pickles in North Carolina out of a crop worth less than $20 million dollars, and the Company says this shows that it does not have the economic power to force unionization in its suppliers. FLOC pointed to unfair or illegal practices by growers and several farm workers who died between 1995 and 2001 from bad working conditions (although only one was picking cucumbers near the time when he died) and said that Mt. Olive’s control over the variety grown (which the Company denies having, although it does have seed stocks), pesticide use, and prices meant it was involved in how its suppliers treated their workers. Targeting Mt. Olive made strategic sense instead of targeting farmers who were at the whim of the Company and other cucumber processors. Mt. Olive says cucumber farming requires little investment and occurs on multi-crop farms, making farmers independent of purchasers but a recent report by Oxfam America shows how processing companies such as Mt. Olive are consolidating and shifting more of their production processes on to suppliers. To pressure Mt. Olive FLOC, along with community, religious, and student allies, picketed grocery stores such as Kroger and Lowes Foods in North Carolina and elsewhere to demand that they join the boycott. Usually pickles were temporarily removed from shelves but large chains in California and Ohio did pressure Mt. Olive to negotiate with FLOC. Over the past year FLOC increased picket actions and launched a massive and swift national campaign targeting Lowes Foods, a chain that was previously left alone. Key to the FLOC victory was endorsement of the boycott by the National Council of Churches (NCCC) and by the United Methodist Church, the church of Mt. Olive President Bill Bryan.
The NCGA was pressured by lawsuits and allegations by a variety of groups that it and farmers in general were often mistreating workers. The NCGA brings in most of the state’s H-2A guest workers. This is a U.S. Labor Department program giving mostly Mexican workers permission to work in the USA seasonally. About 60% of cucumber workers in the state are guest workers according to the Association’s President, Stan Eury. H-2A workers have advantages over undocumented immigrants (who overwhelmingly outnumber them in North Carolina, which is fifth in the number of immigrant farm workers) but the program also makes exploitation easier. H-2A workers are guaranteed $8.06 dollars or more per hour in wages (and a piece rate of 44% of the cost of what they are harvesting), while undocumented immigrants make $5.15 dollars an hour or less. Guest workers cannot choose or leave their employer while the program guarantees workers for the farmers, making it easy to get rid of troublesome workers. During the summer of 2003 alone FLOC received reports that farmers had tried to force workers to sign resignation papers when they got sick from pesticides, workers were afraid to say they were sick and were afraid to report housing violations for fear of being blacklisted, age and sexual discrimination in Mexico by the Association, lack of bathrooms and drinking cups on the job, being denied breaks, denial of transportation from housing camps, being forced to use company stores, workers being fired for injury and denied workers’ compensation, and not being given travel re-imbursement as had been promised contractually. The NCGA was sued in April 2004 for allegedly blacklisting 9 workers and a total of 17,000, about twice the size of Hollywood’s blacklist of “communists.”
Mt. Olive said it was open to cooperating with a range of groups to improve working conditions and pushed the H-2A program as a way of undercutting criticism of the working conditions of cucumber pickers. This resulted in more pressure being directed at the NCGA (which Mt. Olive was once a member of), which administers the guest worker program in the state, by activists. FLOC at first highlighted breaches on farms within 40 miles of Mt. Olive’s headquarters in the eastern North Carolina town of Mount Olive. Agreeing to work with FLOC and establishing a grievance system became appealing to the NCGA as a way of absolving farmers of wrongdoing and ending lawsuits. 10 farm workers elected by an advisory committee of 80 negotiated with the farmers’ association after H-2A workers met every week to hammer out their demands. Two highlights of the agreement are ending the blacklisting of farm workers by the NCGA for asking to use a bathroom or get water, union activity, sickness, pesticide poisoning, etc. that FLOC alleges occurred and the creation of a three-step, less than 21 day grievance process. Grievances will be settled by rank-and-file union representatives with two ˝ days of training provided by FLOC and the NCGA and will receive $10 an hour when dealing with grievances.
The agreement with the NCGA covers many other points. FLOC negotiates wages and working and living conditions with the Association. The Association will be neutral in unionization of H-2A workers and supplied FLOC with a list of its members. A seniority system will be established based on growers’ preference, seniority, and membership in FLOC and workers will not be discriminated against based on sex, religion, age, nationality, race, or union membership. Transferred workers can file grievances and grievance will not result in firing. Every 20 workers will have one camp representative, trained by FLOC, who will deal with grievances, handle pesticide announcements, help settle worker disputes, and report to FLOC about the situation in the workers’ camp. This will cover about 100 farmers spread out across the state and staff in 8 regions will cover the 900 remaining farms with less than 12 workers. Workers will be allowed to receive visitors, such as FLOC and Legal Aid (a government service), which FLOC says was already legal but was being infringed by farmers. Unsettled disputes between FLOC and the NCGA will be referred to the Dunlop Commission, a private labor relations board headed by former Secretary of Labor Dr. John Dunlop until his death last year and created by FLOC and companies in Ohio. FLOC will receive a day’s notice before a worker is fired so that it can provide a defense. FLOC can request information about what agricultural chemicals are being used. Workers injured at work will receive a full day’s wages. If close relatives of a worker die, the worker has the right to go home on his or her own money and will get three days paid leave if he or she proves a funeral occurred. Standing committees of FLOC, Association, and government representatives are to be set up to look at issues such as housing, healthcare, and negotiating price increases with other companies. The NCGA was evidently systematically lying about the period guest workers were working; resulting in workers illegally being denied travel re-imbursement, and the travel process is being changed to accommodate sweet potato harvesters. Workers were contracted to work until November 5, but the tobacco season ends earlier, forcing workers to pay their own travel costs. In March 2004 the U.S. Office of the Inspector General verified that this was occurring. FLOC wanted farmers to pay $14 dollars per day for food for workers on the 4-day ride to and from Mexico and got $10.50 per day. The H-2A program required paying $8 dollars and the farmers were paying them $9 dollars a day. The NCGA will pay the new cost. A “Freedom to Worship” clause allows workers to rest for half a day after 7 consecutive workdays. Fees guest workers pay to recruiters in Mexico will be recorded. The two parties will speak to the Mexican government about corruption among recruiters and police and bus robberies and to the US government about issues with farm worker and guest worker legislation. Stan Eury calls the agreement “the most progressive agricultural worker-employer accord in the nation” (Toledo Blade, September 17, 2004). The agreement is binding until 2007.
The NCGA’s negotiations with FLOC were probably the final blow for Mt. Olive, which decided to settle with the union after years of desultory dialogue. The boycott’s impact on sales was minor except in areas in the Midwest according to Bill Bryan. Mt. Olive signed a side-bar agreement with FLOC and the NCGA promising to be neutral regarding unionization and to pay its 60 cucumber suppliers 10% more over 3 years so that the piece rate can be increased $10 to $12 dollars. Mt. Olive had argued that its cucumber prices were competitive with those in unionized Ohio. FLOC agreed to urge other companies (Vlasic, Mr. Pickle, Paradise, Van Holten, Peter Pepper, and others) to increase prices. Mt. Olive often pointed out that FLOC was pressuring them while it had agreements with rival pickle companies such as Vlasic in Ohio but not in North Carolina while Mt. Olive’s one supplier in Ohio did have a relationship with FLOC. Suppliers who decide to provide workers’ comp will get a 3% price bonus for it. The Company is investigating becoming the first “fair trade pickle” company (meaning it would work to improve the conditions of its international suppliers). In signing the agreement President Bill Bryan said he respected FLOC’s ability but still considered the boycott wrong and that “I am one pickle packer who is glad to get out of a pickle today” (Times-News of Hendersonville, North Carolina, September 17, 2004).
Within weeks of signing the agreement, before union due were paid, there were 500 grievances, all won by the workers, and $6000 dollars in back pay were paid at one of the state’s largest farms. Seventy workers in one camp were illegally being paid below the H-2A minimum and FLOC put an end to this. In the first week there were about a dozen grievances and 7 fired workers in two groups were reinstated. There were three claims for workers comp and Union representatives helped several workers get medical care before voluntarily quitting because of illness or injury. FLOC is helping settle worker-employer and worker-worker disputes, including a camp dispute that nearly resulted in someone being fired. FLOC had to wait 2 weeks for new member dues and only received a month of union dues at the end of the agricultural season. FLOC first signed up workers as associate members in the state and was able to make gains through lawsuits and demonstrating against unscrupulous farmers. In northwest Ohio FLOC dealt with over 600 grievances this year, from a population of 4000 workers working for 60 suppliers. Nearly 200 grievances came from the 200 workers at Mt. Olive’s one Ohio contractor, in Fort Grove.
This historic and far-reaching agreement may make FLOC the target of forces that want to keep the South largely un-unionized and FLOC faces growing pains in administering the contract. Workers are spread throughout the state tucked away in rural areas without transportation, making meetings difficult and there will be initial fear of being fired despite the contract. As said above, FLOC is operating without a lot of money and it is also planning to open a field office in Mexico at Monterrey to monitor guest worker recruitment and to avoid North Carolina’s “right to work” laws. The agreement is threatened by the fact that these are seasonal workers who will require leadership development and education every year and who may not come back each year. “Right to work” laws will require membership drives ever year according to Baldemar Velasquez, but other restrictive laws are superseded by the contract. Nine full time organizers will be required as well as transportation for workers. Some farmers will join the NCGA because of the deal. The NCGA will also lose farmers because of the unrelated tobacco buyout and opposition to FLOC. The Farm Bureau is hoping to bring in guest workers as a non-union alternative. In Ohio some growers are still trying to get rid of FLOC and disputes prevented the Dunlop Commission from meeting during the fall of 2000.
is considering several new
campaigns. FLOC’s popular founder and
Velasquez says “This
important standard to the rest of the agricultural industry. Everyone else almost exclusively utilizes undocumented workers and the conditions of those
workers are tragic and shameful” (FLOC press release) and FLOC plans to use it to improve the condition of undocumented workers in the state. This will require a new community organizer and worker organizer, according to FLOC organizing director Leticia Zavala. FLOC may target cucumber suppliers in Florida, Mexico, or India. Its agreement with the NCGA says FLOC can try to unionize competing cucumber suppliers. Because of seasonality and variety differences, Mt. Olive purchases cucumbers from at least nine states and in 3 other countries. Expansion in western Michigan where the independent contractor system still exists is a possibility. Baldemar Velasquez says “We're not going to have a lot of luck fighting over whatever crumbs are thrown on the table. You got to get to the crumb thrower” (Toledo Blade, October 3, 2004). FLOC may try to replicate the victory with tobacco growers in states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
This is a powerful victory and hopefully FLOC will be able to build on it and expand its benefits to other workers. Organizing farm workers will contribute greatly to organizing the South and eliminating the region as a tool for attacking unions in other states through means such as plant relocations and electing anti-union politicians. The victory will improve the H-2A program for workers but it is still a flawed program for the benefit of agribusiness.
Over the long run, change for workers that cannot be undone requires going beyond only economic demands and organizing nationally and internationally for the political victory of the working class. Further, we believe Marxist-Leninist knowledge of history and strategy for class struggle is necessary for this class victory over the bourgeoisie. FLOC has been supportive of anti-war protests in North Carolina and the Million Worker March, showing a lot of political awareness.
FLOC asks that its supporters now buy Mt. Olive but continue the boycott of Taco Bell in support of tomato pickers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. FLOC is currently asking for donations to support its work and opening the Monterrey office. Donations (please make checks payable to FLOC) can be sent to:
PO Box 557
Dudley, North Carolina 28333.