News: Everyone Else Does It

The curious rhetoric of the pickle packers

Jan 4, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

TransAtlantic Business Dialogue protestors marched to the Kroger headquarters building, led by Baldemar Velasquez (second from right).

Those wily union agitators are at it again, this time stirring up good Christian folk who don't know any better. Of all the offbeat characters who turned out during N16 — Cincinnati's anti-globalization demonstrations during the Nov. 16-18 TransAtlantic Business Dialogue conference — one of the most enigmatic was a flack for an agribusiness corporation. When protesters marched in support of a boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles, company spokesman James Copens started making the rounds of local newspapers.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is working to organize cucumber pickers in North Carolina, many of them migrants living in substandard housing. When demonstrators targeted the Kroger Corp., demanding the company stop selling Mt. Olive Pickles, Copens said FLOC is fighting dirty and duping gullible souls.

Union farm workers in Ohio and Michigan make $5.80 per 100 pounds of cucumbers picked, according to FLOC. But migrants in North Carolina work for as little as $1.80 per 100 pounds, the union says.

"This is modern-day slave labor," says FLOC leader Baldemar Velasquez. "Mount Olive has a strategy to provide themselves with a low-wage, exploitable work force. It's a strategy of the (pickle) industry."

FLOC wants Mt. Olive Pickles to buy cucumbers only from farms that negotiate contracts with farm workers. But the company sees the demand as an improper interference with business relationships.

"Mt. Olive's position is they're not forcing growers to enter into a contract," Copens says. "It's like one business telling another business what to do."

At first glance, that argument might seem principled, a sort of paean to the free market. But, in fact, businesses tell other businesses what to do all the time. Mt. Olive Pickles, for example, presumably sets quality standards for the cucumbers it buys or dictates the times and places vendors can make deliveries to its plants. Indeed, the company even has standards for working conditions on farms that supply it, according to Copens.

"Mt. Olive does their best to deal with buyers and growers that comply with state standards," he says.

The life of many migrant workers in North Carolina is less than pastoral bliss, Copens allows.

"That does not mean there aren't small farms with substandard housing," he says. "There are. I've seen them. There's a lot of things Mt. Olive isn't going to dispute in the industry."

When you get right down to it, the company doesn't even mind if its cukes are handled by union hands.

"They have no objection to buying from union farms," Copens says.

But the company doesn't want to be part of a three-way deal with FLOC and cucumber farmers.

Faced with an impasse in efforts to negotiate with Mt. Olive Pickles, FLOC has taken to publicizing conditions on farms where migrants work. The union reports that tests have shown contaminated water supplies at 44 percent of migrant camps in the state.

The boycott has gained the endorsement of Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk — and that's not fair, according to Copens.

"Churches and other organizations are predisposed," he says. "I've got nothing against religion, per se. But these people are jumping on an agenda that's emotion-based."

Not only are churchgoers easy prey for a tug on the heartstrings, but they also have the unfortunate habit of listening to their pastors — providing yet another opportunity for union perfidy, according to Copens.

"They're taking the issue to religious groups, which are already predisposed to taking direction from a top-down organization," Che says. "I think their tactics sometimes are a little ruthless."

Furthermore, Copens says, FLOC isn't really interested in helping people at all. It just wants their union dues.

"They just want their money," he says.

Back on the farm
Copens, it turns out, is something of a migrant worker himself, a freelance public-relations consultant working on contract for various companies. Asked to name other corporate clients he represents, he refuses.

"I'm afraid you'll use it against me," he says.

A resident of Cincinnati and a self-described liberal, Copens says he took up the pickle company's cause because he was outraged by FLOC's tactics. Mt. Olive says it hired Copens as a consultant for media relations during the N16 protests.

Mt. Olive's full-time spokesman, Lynn Williams, offers a less colorful presentation of the company's position, but that's not to say it's wholly unimaginative. If there is a victim in the cucumber fields of North Carolina, Williams suggests, it is Mt. Olive Pickles.

North Carolina's $6.7 billion agricultural industry in 1999 included $28 million in cucumbers, of which Mt. Olive purchased only $3.7 million. FLOC is picking on a little guy, Williams says, a company in no position to change migrant workers' plight.

"Even if we agreed, farmers have choices in North Carolina," Williams says. "They don't have to grow cucumbers. It's a short growing season. We couldn't make it happen if we wanted to."

Velasquez says he's heard the same arguments before, during his 1978-85 campaign to organize farm workers in Ohio. A boycott of Campbell Soup Co. during that period led to an agreement analogous to the one FLOC wants with Mt. Olive.

But the cucumber business in North Carolina isn't the same as the cucumber business in Ohio, where cucumbers are much more profitable, Williams says.

"In North Carolina, cucumber farming is just something they do in-between," she says. "If we do try to force the contracts on the farms, one of two things will happen. Either the farmer will sell the cucumbers to someone else, or they will drop the cucumbers altogether."

Supporters of the Mt. Olive boycott might argue that the campaign to improve the living conditions of migrant workers will come in increments, one company at a time.

But eating another company's pickles won't help workers who pick for Mt. Olive or anyone else, Williams says.

"People are instructed to buy other brands," she says. "But (the other brands) do the same thing." ©