News: Workers Squeeze Grocery Giant

Teamsters and farmworkers unite to fight Kroger

Jymi Bolden

Baldemar Velasquez addresses a June 26 protest against the Kroger Co.

Shareholders in the Kroger Co. met June 26 at Music Hall to discuss corporate profits and management changes, but outside protesters demanded the company pay attention to workers' needs.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters picketed the meeting, carrying signs saying, "Stop The Attack On Working Families" and chanting, "Don't spend a nickel on a Mt. Olive Pickle!"

The goal of the protest was twofold: to convince the Kroger Co. to support the boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co., and to fight plans to eliminate 120 Teamster jobs in Columbus.

"We are going to fight for a fairly compensated work force," said John Williams, director of the warehouse division of the Teamsters. "This company needs to stand for the families of Ohio."

FLOC has led a boycott of Mt. Olive products since 1999 in an effort to pressure the company to negotiate a three-way contract with North Carolina cucumber growers and their workers. Many of the workers are immigrant laborers from Mexico working legally in the United States. Their working and living conditions are harsh, according to FLOC organizer Nick Wood.

"They can't even afford to buy the food themselves," he said. "It's not right — people are dying in those fields, stooping down, making minimum wage, being sprayed by pesticides."

FLOC and Human Rights Watch claim that workers brought to North Carolina through the federal H-2A program work without clean water, lack restrooms and live in overcrowded shack-like houses.

The Mt. Olive Pickle Co. has taken the position that union representation is a matter to be decided by the farmers and farmworkers.

But other agricultural corporations, such as the Campbell Soup Co., have taken the same stance only to yield under pressure from farmworkers' supporters, according to Dick Wiesenhahn, a FLOC organizer.

"Campbell said the same thing," Wiesenhahn said.

FLOC and Human Rights Watch argue that Mt. Olive dictates to growers the number of bushels of cucumbers to be delivered, the purchase price and growing standards. Therefore, FLOC says, Mt. Olive can and should compel growers to negotiate with laborers.

FLOC organized a similar boycott in the 1980s against Campbell Soup on behalf of farmworkers in Ohio. The company later negotiated a three-way contract with the growers and workers.

"Once the farmworkers declare a boycott, they ain't gonna lose," Wiesenhahn said. "It always takes a long time with a nonviolent boycott."

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk has endorsed the boycott. Protest organizers read a letter from archdiocesan representative William Re.

"The goal is not to crush the Mt. Olive Co., but to bring it to the bargaining table," Re wrote.

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez, who was a migrant worker as a child, called for increased pressure on Kroger.

"They're saying, 'We're not going to worry about hundreds of Mexican workers because we treat thousands of union workers just fine,' " Velasquez said. "How many have heard the phrase, 'An injury to one is an injury to all?' We oughta be more militant with them."

Addressing the idea that a protest against Kroger, a union-contracted grocer, is self-destructive, Velasquez said, "Sometimes a good soldier needs to call in the artillery on his own position."

Teamsters also picketed the shareholders meeting, trying to save jobs in Columbus. The grocery chain should appreciate the contributions its union workers have made to the company's success, according to Roger Insprucker, president of Teamsters Local No. 114.

"Kroger is a head above any other in Cincinnati, and they got there because of the union," he said. "Union people gave them their name. Kroger does a better job because of its people."

Kroger has announced it will lay off about 120 truck drivers and give their jobs to a non-union contractor in Texas.

"It's perplexing why this company in their home state, who are getting a tax advantage, is bringing in drivers from Texas," Williams said. "We're not saying they're bad people. They made a business decision. We are saying it's a bad decision."

Like Velasquez, Gil Litton called for a determined fight with Kroger. He's president of Teamsters Local No. 413, which represents the Columbus drivers.

"What they're doing in Columbus isn't going to stop unless we stop them," Litton said.

The union drivers who are losing their jobs have a combined 1,000 years of safe driving experience, driving more than 2.3 million accident free miles in 2002, according to union officials.

"They prospered because of the Teamster drivers — and this is the thanks we get," Insprucker shouted.

Wood urged the Kroger Co. to consider the benefits of having a union workforce.

"Kroger, if you're listening, you're not going to beat Wal-Mart on prices," he said. "You're going to beat them by treating your workers right. Only when a union is organized can we have an organized America. And only when we have an organized America can we have just America."

Velasquez said he is ready to make sure shareholders understand.

"If Gil tells me we need to go back to Cincinnati and take over that shareholders meeting, I'm going to be the first arrested," he said.

Kroger spokesman Gary Rhodes did not return phone calls seeking comment. ©

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