For the past five years, you haven't been served a Mt. Olive pickle at a campus eatery. For the past five months, you haven't purchased a Mt. Olive pickle at a campus store.
Now the University is deciding whether you'll eat one at Duke in the future. Duke is reassessing its support of the boycott against Mt. Olive Pickle Company, which has been accused of providing unjust working conditions for farm laborers.
"It's obvious that working conditions for migrant workers on farms are very poor--not just poor where cucumbers are harvested, but poor almost overall," said Jim Wilkerson, director of Duke Stores operations. "And the question is: Is it Mt. Olive? Is it justified to target Mt. Olive? Is Mt. Olive worse than other companies? Or is this a system-wide problem?"
Students from the Duke Progressive Alliance approached Wilkerson about joining the boycott against the pickle producer last October.
"From the beginning of the student labor movement, Duke has always been a forerunner, so I think that it's gained a lot of respect in this manner," said freshman Allison Brim, a Progressive Alliance leader. "Duke publicly supporting this boycott would set a precedent for other universities and colleges to do the same."
Students told Wilkerson that Dining Services had not sold Mt. Olive products for several years, and they wanted to know why Duke Stores was continuing to stock the brand.
Wilkerson decided to temporarily remove Mt. Olive products from his convenience stores. He then sent a list of questions to the two major players in the debate: Mt. Olive, which had not been aware that its product was being boycotted by Duke, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the farm laborer's union behind the three-year long boycott.
"For far too long farm workers have been told what to do," said FLOC organizer Nick Wood, who is responsible for planning weekly boycotts at area Kroger stores. "They've been abused. They've been exploited. They've been threatened with being fired if they complain about their condition."
The union's goal is to force Mt. Olive President Bill Bryan into negotiations to improve conditions for workers. But the company stresses that it does not directly contract with its cucumber pickers, but rather with individual farm owners. Bryan said he does not want to remove the owners' autonomy to dictate wages and conditions.
"All that we decline to do is to force independent farm suppliers into collective bargaining processes that they may or may not want," Bryan said. "We are not regulatory agencies. We are trying to cooperate with the regulatory agencies, helping them to conduct inspections and do their jobs monitoring health and safety standards."
Many organizations in addition to FLOC reject this stance. One of them is United Students Against Sweatshops, which has recently adopted the Mt. Olive boycott as one of its national priorities.
In a Feb. 15 letter to Bryan, USAS wrote: "When we began, companies in the apparel industry claimed that because they used subcontractors it was not their responsibility to ensure fair working conditions. As United Students Against Sweatshops we rejected that myth coming from them and reject your notion that you have no control over your farmers."
While the boycott is putting pressure on Mt. Olive, protesters are also attempting to expose injustices in the North Carolina farm system in general, Brim said. Federal laws governing labor unions do not apply to farm workers.
"USAS and FLOC are interested in improving working conditions and they see the unionization of farm workers as the answer," said Wilkerson. "I don't necessarily see that. I'm not really concerned about whether or not Mt. Olive supports unions. I'm more concerned about whether or not they support good working conditions for farm workers."
Wilkerson hopes to make a recommendation to the administration within the next 30 days. Director of Duke Dining Jim Wulforst has agreed to let Wilkerson's decision speak for his division as well.
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