In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) decided to proceed with plans for a Sept. 16 prayer vigil to remember Urbano Ramirez. On June 26, Ramirez, a Mexican farmworker, was working in a Halifax County tobacco field when he fell ill, received no medical attention and later died.
FLOC, a Toledo, Ohio-based union that is trying to get a collective bargaining agreement for North Carolina cucumber pickers, has called for a consumer boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. Wayne County-based Mt. Olive is the South's largest producer of pickle products.When he died, Ramirez was working for tobacco and cucumber farmer Jake Taylor, who sells cucumbers to a brokerage company that supplies Mt. Olive.
At a press conference held Sept. 14 in Raleigh, FLOC staff member Guillermina Loera said Ramirez's death could have been prevented, and she accused Taylor and the supervisor who was working the day Ramirez died of negligence.
Witness accounts claim that Ramirez, apparently overcome by heat stroke, suffered a severe nosebleed, which forced him to stop working. Instead of providing medical care, witnesses claim Ramirez was told by a crew leader to rest. At the end of the workday, Ramirez didn't turn up. His partially decomposed body was discovered near the work site 10 days later. Raleigh attorney Robert J. Willis said Ramirez's death is not being investigated for criminal negligence, but he is pursuing a worker's compensation claim on behalf of Ramirez's wife and four children who reside in Mexico.
FLOC representatives claim Ramirez's death is indicative of why farmworkers need a union, but Mt. Olive officials have accused the union of exploiting the situation to serve its union-building efforts.
Loera said the union decided to go forward with the prayer vigil after the terrorist attacks because "only positive things can result from such a gathering. ... Although we pray for specific issues such as Urbano Ramirez and the attack on America, our overarching issue is justice. Our world is full of injustice, and we must gather to be as one and pray for an end to all violence."
Among the speakers at the Sept. 14 press conference was Ramirez's cousin Policarpo Ibarra Ramirez.
"My cousin died in the tobacco field because the supervisor did not pay attention to him," Ibarra Ramirez said through an interpreter. "The crew leader didn't pay attention when he was sick. They didn't take him to the hospital and they didn't perform first aid on him.
"Often Mexicans that work in the fields are cheated out of their wages. I don't want all of the Hispanics that live in this state to remain quiet, but to speak up."
Triangle FLOC organizer Matt Emmick says it was crucial to hold the vigil, which drew about 200 people to a park adjacent to Mt. Olive headquarters.
"I think the vigil was a very important event," he says. "People came from as far away as Charlotte. The event was necessary to honor Urbano and give his family closure, but it was also important to call attention to the systemic abuses that foster such horrible conditions in labor camps. We must continue to pray that such a tragedy never happens again."
FLOC, like many progressive groups trying to organize in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, is switching gears somewhat, says Emmick. The group has put a hold on grocery store pickets and is looking at other strategies to garner consumer support for the boycott.
"We are regrouping after the tragedy to figure out what courses of action are appropriate," Emmick says. "We held our first leafleting after the tragedy [on Sept. 27], which went well. That's an indication that public opinion favors us going ahead."
Emmick says the union will continue its regular leafleting campaign at various Kroger stores around the Triangle. The campaign is designed to get consumers to pressure Kroger to remove Mt. Olive products from its shelves.
Emmick says FLOC is in the beginning stages of moving its Faison office to a bigger facility, hopefully in Wayne County, nearer to Mt. Olive. The new headquarters would include a "Latino Workers' Center," Emmick says, "in which we can offer workers' rights training and ESL classes. We hope to build a strong core of support from the resident Latino community in Eastern North Carolina."
More staff has led to more organizing, and more interest from Latino farmworkers, most of whom shun involvement with the union for fear of deportation or being fired, Emmick says. "On the worker front, this year has been exciting as workers have been much more open and less fearful. We have made inroads in many camps and are building a solid foundation."
FLOC gained national attention in the 1980s when a previous boycott against The Campbell Soup Co. led to a union contract for farmworkers who harvest Campbell's huge tomato crop. As with the Campbell effort, FLOC is asking Mt. Olive to enter into an unusual three-way collective bargaining agreement that would include farmworkers, growers and Mt. Olive. Growers, many of whom grow cucumbers under direct contracts with Mt. Olive, claim they can't improve working conditions or raise salaries for farmworkers until they get higher prices for their crops.
Sister Joan Jurski, who heads Peace and Justice for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, says Ramirez's death "needs to be an alarm for us, a wake-up call that the farmworkers are here in our state and will continue to be. ... We believe that they should be able to work under humane and safe conditions and receive just wages for their labors so that they have a voice in the destiny of their lives."