Addressing a quite verbal group of about 50 students and members of the Durham community, Mt. Olive Pickle Company president William Bryan stood firmly by his company and its policies.
The speech, prompted by the ongoing debate surrounding Mt. Olive's labor practices, began with a discussion of exactly what his company is, and what it is not. "Many people naturally assume Mt. Olive Pickle Company must manage large farming operations and employ significant numbers of migrant farm workers-we don't," Bryan said.
Mt. Olive does not employ farm workers; it merely contracts with independent farms for cucumbers.
Bryan said his company became a target for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee when Mt. Olive refused to assist FLOC in unionizing migrant workers in North Carolina. "FLOC's demand on our company, however, is simply unreasonable," he said.
For much of the talk, Bryan reaffirmed the fact that his company does not mistreat its employees. Although it strives to maintain its competitive place in the market, he said, Mt. Olive Pickle Company will not act unethically.
"Despite what you may have heard, Mt. Olive is not a bad corporate citizen," Bryan said. "You are targeting a company that is known for its ethical conduct."
He claimed that many of the allegations against his company come from people who have "received some information... and have taken a side" or who "don't have all the facts."
But some members of the audience strongly disagreed. "I think it's arrogant to assume that the people who have endorsed this boycott are ignorant," said Joan Preiss, a board member of the National Farm Worker Ministry. "I think he has made his case, [but] presented a lot of misinformation."
Bryan insisted that because his company has great concern for the community, it would not mistreat its employees. "Mt. Olive has deep roots in the Mt. Olive community," Bryan said. "Our company's shareholders are... people with close ties to the community or our employees."
In addition, Bryan said, "We seek out and try to do business with quality [establishments]."
Many audience members angrily claimed that the company does nothing to ensure the well-being of smaller distributors.
In response, Bryan said he does indeed have sympathy for owners of small farms. "We are trying to direct some funds to the farm workers," he said. "I respect the work they do." Bryan explained that the only thing his company can do is work with regulatory authorities to make sure farmers are treated properly.
Another hotly debated point of the discussion arose with the suggestion that Bryan raise the price of his pickles to provide the workers with higher wages.
Bryan responded that his company is subject to the demands of the market. "We put a price out based on the market conditions," he said. "Eventually, if you ignore the market forces, you're going to go out of business."
The one point of agreement between Mt. Olive supporters and opponents is the value of speaking out on the issue. "We are delighted when people want to hear our position," Bryan said.
Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC president, said in an interview earlier Monday that it is important to bring both viewpoints to campus. "I think it is very important to have free discussion. Open debate will allow the facts and the truth to come out," he said, adding, "I welcome a face-to-face debate with Bryan."
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