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A United Front

Activists make a unified call for worker's rights

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In the four years since Latino union leader Baldemar Velasquez first started organizing in North Carolina, the founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee has stressed the importance of coalition-building in the effort to unionize the state's farmworkers.

Velasquez has garnered support from the state AFL-CIO and numerous secular and faith-based progressive groups, but since FLOC announced its boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Co. products in March 1999, little headway has been made in the effort to persuade consumers to join the effort.

That may be changing. While past FLOC events have focused primarily on the plight of farmworkers, last Saturday's Juneteenth march and rally in downtown Raleigh demonstrated that FLOC is making lots of new friends.

More than 300 people--a solid mix of blacks, whites and Latinos--showed up for Juneteenth, a worldwide celebration that honors the ending of slavery. Mixed in with the "Boycott Mt. Olive" placards were lots of other signs. Socialists from Jacksonville, union workers from Greenville, a group opposed to police brutality from Greensboro and advocates of affordable health care from the Triangle were among those marching alongside Velasquez.

Velasquez said a key goal of the boycott campaign is to unite all workers. "We all belong in one solid movement--the working people. We have to overcome the politics of division."

FLOC is calling on Mt. Olive to enter into a unique three-way collective bargaining agreement between the union, the farmworkers who harvest cucumbers for Mt. Olive and the cucumber growers. Mt. Olive CEO Bill Bryan has refused to support FLOC's efforts, saying his company only buys from growers who comply with all federal labor laws. The issues being raised by FLOC should be taken up with the growers, not Mt. Olive, Bryan says.

As last week's march moved down South Wilmington Street, crowds of people stopped to watch and listen to the cadence of the crowd's chanting: "The workers need a living wage--put an end to corporate greed," and "Don't spend a nickel on a Mt. Olive pickle."

Velasquez said he's not worried that FLOC is diluting its message by joining forces with so many groups with diverse views. "Invariably, the opposition has the same bankers, the same international financial cartels and multinational corporations to support the status quo."

For the boycott to work, FLOC must "go after the financial institutions that are connected to the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.," Velasquez said. "As far as I'm concerned, anyone that's making any money off these pickles ... is contributing to the exploitation of the workers in the fields."

Slavery may have been outlawed in the United States, but the practice never died, Velasquez said. Velasquez cites a farmer who once told a FLOC worker: "The North may have won the war, but that was just on paper. We've never given up our slaves."

"We hear a lot of that language directly from farmers who tell us we're the new slaves." Velasquez said. "We, the Mexicans, are the new slaves."

In the United States, white lives remain more valuable than those of African Americans and Latinos, Velasquez said. For example, when a mass shooting occurred at Columbine High--a white middle-class school--"that tragedy was addressed properly," Velasquez said. "But when black kids and Latino kids are killed in the fields and in the urban areas it's not as important, it's not as drastic."B

arbara Prear, a leader in the successful effort to unionize housekeepers at UNC-Chapel Hill in the '90s who is now a member of the United Electrical Workers, was also marching with Velasquez. "It's all about uniting," Prear said. "We have to come together."

Marching near Prear was 10-year-old Harmony Tripp, a little redheaded, freckle-faced girl from Jacksonville who was sporting a red T-shirt with a quote from Eugene Debs, and a button from the Young Peoples Socialist League.

"I like fighting for peoples' rights," said Tripp, whose stepfather, Vernon Kelley, is president of the Socialist Party of North Carolina. "I feel like I'm doing a really important thing."

For Velasquez, the important thing is get enough consumers to think like Tripp.

"I don't think that [the owners of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.] are bad people," he said. "I just think that this is the way they've done business for so long in the South that there's no reason to change it. I think that these cultural institutional relationships are the most difficult things to evolve and to change, so when we ask them to do things differently we're asking that they actually change the entire lifestyle, the way they live and the way they're used to thinking about things. To me that's one of the biggest obstacles.

"The only way we can do that is to make it more costly for them not to address these things." EndBlock

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