Where Union Has Gone Before

MOUNT OLIVE, N.C.—In the mid-1980s, farm labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez helped bring the Campbell's Soup Company to its knees, essentially forcing the corporate giant to negotiate an unprecedented collective bargaining agreement with farm workers and tomato growers.

On June 26, Velasquez announced plans to organize a national boycott of the North Carolina-based Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the South's largest pickle company.

Founder and president of the Toledo, Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Velasquez announced the boycott plans on the steps of the North Carolina state Capitol at the conclusion of a four-day, 70-mile march from Mount Olive to Raleigh.

Like the Campbell's agreement, Velasquez wants Mt. Olive to enter into an unusual three-way labor deal with growers and farm workers to improve working conditions and increase wages for the mostly Latino labor force that picks millions of cucumbers in fields throughout eastern North Carolina.

Company CEO William Bryan says nothing doing. Mt. Olive Pickle Company has conducted its business union-free since 1926, and it plans to hold that line, he said.

"We don't employ migrant farm workers," Bryan said. "They are employed by independent farmers."

Because of the company's large volume cucumber purchases, Mt. Olive signs contracts with certain growers before seeds are even sown. That policy, says Velasquez, obligates the company to deal with farm workers directly.

An evangelical minister, the charismatic Velasquez conjures up images of CTsar Chßvez and Martin Luther King Jr. with his powerful oratory skills and commitment to nonviolence. In speeches Velasquez usually quotes scripture verbatim and confidently assures supporters that victory is at hand because God is on their side.

"What a great day this is," Velasquez told a crowd of about 50 supporters at a rally near the pickle company's gates. "What a great day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it because it is another day to struggle. It is another day to fight a good fight.

"Let's get one thing straight. This is not about overpowering an opponent. This fight is not about doing someone else in. It's about reconciling the oppressed with the oppressor. It's about reconciling the exploited with the exploiter. Because how great it is when the people at the top of the kingdom come down and deliberate and make peace with the people at the bottom of the kingdom. We're not here to castigate anyone as an enemy."

Velasquez says the effort to organize the South's farm workers has parallels with the civil rights movement.

"What we're seeing here in this state is the birth of a new civil rights movement," Velasquez told a jubilant, diverse crowd of supporters gathered at an AFL-CIO-affiliated union hall that provided the marchers with overnight sleeping space on the floor.

This will be a unifying movement, he said, before leading the group in a chant of, "White, black, and brown together."

THE CAMPBELL'S boycott, which dragged on for almost a decade, has taught Velasquez the value of patience. It also taught him the value of grassroots organizing in building a movement. When his campaign against Campbell's began almost 20 years ago, the AFL-CIO and other unions opposed FLOC's efforts. Today, FLOC is an affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, and the federation's North Carolina state president is wholeheartedly backing FLOC's efforts.

"I'm delighted to say to you that the North Carolina state AF of L-CIO will stand with you today, tomorrow, and as long as it takes," James Andrews told FLOC supporters at the rally to kick off the march. Despite union support, it's clear that FLOC will likely be in for a protracted battle in a state that has a history both of hostility toward organized labor and abuse of farm workers.

A married father of four children, Velasquez, 51, said he does not plan to relocate to North Carolina to lead the boycott effort. He plans to return to the state in October with "national figures" to announce the specifics of the boycott. He's leaving the day-to-day organizing in the state to a cadre of FLOC lieutenants, some of whom have many years with FLOC, but lack the name recognition of Velasquez.

Velasquez says the battle with Mt. Olive is the first step toward building a farm worker labor movement in the South.

"I believe the FLOC campaign is going to be one of many campaigns in the South responding to the problems and the crises that these immigrant workers find themselves in," he said.

Despite the current xenophobic tendencies in the United States, Velasquez said Latino workers are sought by industry and often take jobs U.S. citizens pass up.

"These are hard-working people that are really desired here by the industries that hire them," he said. "Those workers are an essential and necessary part of the labor supply that's needed in this region of the South."

UNDER A scorching summer sun, the marchers carried red FLOC flags through the heart of tobacco country and waved to passing motorists. Like civil rights marchers of a generation ago, Velasquez said he's trying to bring national attention to the FLOC cause.

"We will launch a national effort to crunch this company," he said.

In Bryan, Velasquez has a formidable rival who appears ready to do a little grassroots organizing of his own. When the Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh sent a petition to Bryan urging him to negotiate with FLOC, Bryan called the church and asked for a chance to tell the company's side of the story. The church allowed Bryan to come and speak after a Sunday service. Reporters' calls are handled personally by Bryan, who says Mt. Olive has "earned a reputation as a good company and a good corporate citizen."

Nonetheless, Velasquez said Mt. Olive will eventually do as Campbell did 10 years ago: Meet with the union.

"Mr. Bryan and the executives there, at some point we're going to have to talk and reconcile the differences between us," Velasquez told a rally near the gates of the pickle plant. "I've met with Mr. Bryan twice. He's an amicable man, intelligent, doing his business. He wants to buy pickles as cheap as he can buy them. That's what businessmen do. You can buy them as cheap as you want, but we want to be part of the market consideration. We want to be able to make a living using that great American work ethic: a fair day's pay for a fair day's work."

Velasquez sees the FLOC effort as prophetic, but he downplays any direct comparisons between him and Martin Luther King Jr.

"I'm no Martin Luther King," he said. "I just have to trust God, in how God wants to use me. I'm willing to be used. I think we have to speak what God puts in our heart and put it out to the people. As long as God keeps putting that in my heart, I'll keep speaking it. The day he wants me to shut up, I'll shut up."

PATRICK O'NEILL is a journalist who lives with his wife and three daughters at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker House in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Where Union Has Gone Before"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines