Farm worker union calls for Mt. Olive pickle boycott
March 1999

Slavery in the South did not end with the emancipation of the slaves in 1865. Slavery merely changed forms.

The first change was to a system of sharecropping that reproduced all the power relations of slavery-except for the overseer cracking the whip over the slave in the field. With no other options, former slaves went back into the same fields and performed the same tasks-this time as sharecroppers. In the new system they would always be in debt to the owner. Just like under slavery, they would be hunted down with dogs by the sheriff if they tried to leave the area without taking care of their "obligations." They were still trapped in a slave-labor system.

When sharecropping was phased out in the 20th century, it was not because society finally recognized it for what it was--slavery in another form. Sharecropping was abandoned because it was a better deal for the owners to dump sharecroppers into a migrant labor stream than it was to pay all the expenses associated with sharecropping. With a system of migrant labor, the owner would be free from all pressure to help a sharecropper make it to the next harvest. Migrant slave labor came with no strings attached. There was no need to help with the health or welfare of workers in order to keep them viable for the tasks ahead of them. Migrants have to make it on their own (sleeping in cars, etc.) before they could be hired by a labor contractor who works for the owner and hires migrants for as little as possible--keeping the rest of the money allotted by the owner for farm labor.

"The Harvest of Shame" recorded by Edward R. Murrow at mid-century shows in detail how farm workers in eastern North Carolina are repeating the lives of slaves and sharecroppers. The shame is that slavery never was abolished for the people who harvest our food-people of color trapped in a slave labor system, at the mercy of overseers (now called "labor contractors") who are free to cheat, exploit, and sexually abuse the most powerless among us while the owners of the land and the food-processing corporations that make the contracts with the owners pretend not to know about, or have anything to do with, the misery that is exacted for the purpose of making profits for them. Today little has changed except that multinational corporations make contracts with owners of the land far in advance of the season and specify what they want to see happen in every other area of life--except farm labor. Here they want to disclaim all responsibility for the conditions of labor on which they rely.

This has prompted a change of strategies in the farm workers' movement. The goal is now to get a three-way collective bargaining contract that forces the food corporations and the growers to pay fair wages to workers and to end abuses. It forces the rich and powerful to take responsibility for the conditions that generate their profits. By this means we can end slave labor in the fields.

It worked in Ohio and Michigan. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) carried out a boycott of Campbells and Vlasic that resulted (after 8 years) in contracts guaranteeing fair wages for all workers before and during the season.

But these contracts are being undermined by efforts to shift crops like cucumbers (pickles) to the south where they will not be under union contract. Mt. Olive Pickle Company is "harvesting shame" from the same fields in North Carolina that Edward R. Murrow covered in the fifties. Peonage, the exploitation of farm labor, is the institution Mt. Olive counts on to produce pickles at lower prices. FLOC has targeted Mt. Olive for a national boycott and is attempting to unionize farm workers in the South to stop the exploitation of farm labor once and for all. In the union newspaper, Hasta La Victoria, farm workers have issued the call, "End peonage in the South. Fight Mt. Olive Pickle Co.!"

The AFL-CIO, which is now affiliated with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, has just voted to boycott Mt. Olive products and join the farm workers' picket lines outside the grocery chains that feature pickles produced under slave labor conditions. It is expected that churches and religious groups will continue and expand their support. We all expect to see an end to slavery in the fields of the South.

Join an informational picket of Kash & Karry on NW 13th St. and 23rd Ave. Thursday, March 18 at 5 p.m. to urge them stop stocking Mt. Olive pickles.

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