Audience members heard two sides of the continuing debate over the Mt. Olive Pickle Company and farmworker treatment at a forum Wednesday afternoon.
Organized by the Farmworkers in North Carolina documentary studies class, the discussion pitted Mt. Olive representative Lynn Williams against Farm Labor Organizing Committee spokesperson Matt Emmick and also included Regina Luginbuhl of the North Carolina Department of Labor.
Williams reiterated arguments made by the North Carolina-based Mt. Olive in the past, specifically that it abstains from farmworker unionization debates because it does not directly employ such workers. Instead, the processing company purchases its supplies from area farms.
"Farmers and farmworkers need to determine for themselves whether unions are in their best interest," she said, adding that cucumbers account for less than 1 percent of farmworkers' hours.
Additionally, she said, the company hires suppliers that provide "a reliable supply of labor, safe and sanitary housing and working conditions."
She also said it discontinues relations with suppliers not in compliance with state regulations.
Emmick, however, pointed to the low wages, unsanitary living conditions and lack of benefits that plague many farmworkers and discussed the work of FLOC to increase pay and build better housing with cooperative programs in Ohio.
Lobbying by FLOC and concerned students on campus led the University to begin a boycott of Mt. Olive pickles in its eateries five years ago. About six months ago, Duke decided not to offer the company's products in its stores, and President Nan Keohane upheld that action last month. Officials have said they feel the food producer should take more responsibility for practices on its suppliers' farms.
Emmick echoed that sentiment and criticized Mt. Olive for its reluctance to discuss the workers' status during the two years before the boycott. He said the company is in a position to help laborers.
"Be the source that provides the wages for farmworkers," he told Williams.
Williams said the company has committed to raising wages in the past, but Emmick argued that farmworkers never see that money, since it goes to suppliers and not to their employees.
"Farmers are in the middle," he said. "We want the playing field leveled."
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Also present at the discussion was Luginbuhl, who discussed the main issues the Department of Labor focuses on, including the status of farmworkers and the measurements of success. She said laborers' status depends on whether they have a green card, if they are permitted to work and the nature of their employer.
She also noted that workers are free to seek other employment, and that growers are not required to provide housing.
"I am impressed by their resourcefulness," she said.
She also spoke about the dangers to farmworkers, and stated that the top workplace hazard is driving farm equipment on rural roads. "Inspection does not end with inspection," she said.
Other prominent officials attended the forum, including Director of Duke Stores Operations Jim Wilkerson and Mt. Olive chief executive officer William Bryan.
Most members of the audience, which included several farmworkers and students in the class, voiced their support for the boycott and criticized Mt. Olive.