To those backing a farmworker union in the state, Bill Bryan was public enemy No. 1. Bryan, the CEO of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co., had spent the last five years doing a valiant job fighting off a national consumer boycott of his company’s products by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a Toledo, Ohio-based union. On Sept. 16, Bryan beamed from ear to ear as he received a loud ovation from a roomful of about 200 people who had come to hear the improbable news that Bryan and the N.C. Growers Association (NCGA) had cut a historic deal with FLOC. The deal was hailed by many labor officials as a critical first step toward changing the state’s dismal reputation for farmworker neglect, abuse and sometimes slavery.
Bryan, NCGA executive director Stan Eury and FLOC founder and president Baldemar Velasquez sat together as the official announcement and signing of the agreement was made at Raleigh’s Community United Church of Christ, an activist congregation that was the first in the Triangle to endorse the Mt. Olive boycott. It was also a congregation Bryan had been invited to visit twice over the last five years, both times failing to get the church to drop its support for the boycott.
“I am one pickle packer who is glad to be out of a pickle,” Bryan said. “Our company is pleased to resolve the boycott with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. I do disagree with the boycott tactics, but I respect the persistence and the dedication that Baldemar Velasquez and the FLOC supporters have shown in pursuing their goals.”
Two of those persistent FLOC supporters Bryan mentioned by name in his comments were Raleigh’s Cy King and Durham’s Joan Papert Preiss, both of whom were among Mt. Olive’s harshest critics.
“Cy and Joan, it’s been a long wait,” Bryan yelled. “Enjoy some good Mt. Olive Pickles tonight.”
King and Preiss showed they had no hard feelings. King arrived donning a green baseball cap that bore the Mt. Olive corporate logo, and Preiss, founder of Triangle Friends of the United Farm Workers, had a silver broach pinned to her blouse in the spot where every day for five years she had worn a “Boycott Mt. Olive” button.
“I’m just delighted,” said King, the person who had acted as his church’s liaison with Bryan. “I think it’s wonderful. I must say I was somewhat surprised. I was not expecting it.”
Said Preiss: “I told Bill Bryan this morning when he arrived that I put Mt. Olive pickles on my shopping list.”
Under the agreement, the Growers Association will recognize FLOC in negotiating wages, working and living conditions for union members. More worker protections will be put in place. Mt. Olive will provide a 10 percent pay increase to its cucumber growers over the next three years and encourage its growers to cooperate with the union.
Still left unprotected by the agreement are the thousands of undocumented workers who stream across the U.S.-Mexican border each year looking for work to help their poverty-stricken families back home.
While the boycott did not have “a noticeable impact” on Mt. Olive sales, Bryan said he did have trouble getting Mt. Olive products into the stores of some retailers in and around Toledo, where FLOC is based.
“A substantial amount of my time was involved with this boycott,” said Bryan, who spent much time during the last five years visiting dozens of churches and civic groups “from Florida to Rhode Island to Missouri” defending his company against FLOC. “The number of e-mails, letters, telephone calls, that’s into the thousands,” he said.
The agreement, which only covers “guest workers” who come to the state legally under the federal H-2A program, is a “significant step” in the right direction, said AFL-CIO lawyer Mike Okun of Chapel Hill, who attended the Sept. 16 event.
“It’s a big victory, and it was one that was won outside of the National Labor Relations Act [which does not cover farmworkers],” Okun said. “People just put the pressure on the company.”
Okun said the labor climate in the South still needs big changes.
“We’ve had some other victories recently,” Okun said. “It’s a long road, but this is an important step because the workers stuck together. When workers can stick together and they can get allies to come join them, it’s pretty strong.
“I think there’s a larger percentage of people in North Carolina than ever before who are willing to accept unions. It is going to be a difficult change, but as more and more people get to meet and know more and more union people, I think attitudes will start to change.”
Raleigh Catholic Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, a stalwart backer of FLOC’s campaign, stood behind Velasquez during last week’s press conference.
“This is a great day,” Gossman told the Independent. “Now we have to work on those that are undocumented. They’re the ones that are the worst treated. But this is certainly progress, real progress.”
A deeply religious evangelical Christian, Velasquez called FLOC’s efforts “an exercise in faith. As it says in scripture, ‘The substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen,’ and if you believe that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven; what is loosed in earth is loosed in heaven, all we have to do is stick our nose to the grindstone and manifest victories in the heavens here on earth.
“As long as you commit yourself to the struggle,” he says, “don’t give up, increase the pressure, something’s got to give sooner or later.”
Velasquez said FLOC is far from through in its efforts to unionize the state’s agricultural workers.
“We’re going to go after some of those very high profile individual growers with large numbers of workers,” he said, adding that the Cates Pickle Company, a Mt. Olive competitor, and “big tobacco” might be a future FLOC targets.
“I think we have to choose our targets carefully, put some people on notice, and off we go,” Velasquez said. “The more money we can get for the growers, the more money we can ask from the growers for ourselves. I think that’s the bottom line.”