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Duke lifts boycott of pickle company

The University lifted its boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company and reinstated its licensing agreement with the New Era Cap Company, President Nan Keohane announced Thursday, applauding both companies for actively addressing labor concerns over the past few months.

The decision to welcome Mt. Olive products back to Duke Dining Services and Duke University Stores came after the company pledged to formalize methods for ensuring equitable working conditions for farm workers at its supplier farms. Mt. Olive will require its suppliers and growers to submit statements of compliance with all federal and state farm employment rules.

"We think that we have come up with a model that could be a model for other places around the country," said John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations. "As far as we know, this is the first time in the agricultural industry that a statement of compliance will require that a company monitor all of its farms."

In a letter sent Wednesday to Mt. Olive President William Bryan, Keohane commended the company's willingness to work with the University on issues extending throughout North Carolina's agricultural community.

"We have agreed that this information will provide Mount Olive Pickle Company with the opportunity to react to any violations, to assess your company's dependence on the product, to assist the grower in resolving the deficiency and/or to terminate your contract," Keohane wrote.

Despite the University's optimism that its agreement with Mt. Olive will improve conditions for North Carolina farm workers, some members of Duke Students Against Sweatshops were less than thrilled with the decision. SAS brought the rights farm workers into the limelight with on-campus protests of Mt. Olive and its suppliers over the last several years.

"There are no definitive terms for improvement in the agreement between the University and Mt. Olive," said SAS member Chris Paul, a sophomore. "The conditions of the agreement don't change wages, nor do they require actual improvements or verification of change. They are all just intermediate steps for improvement."

Nick Wood, a representative from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an Ohio-based union, was similarly displeased with the University's decision to lift the boycott. Working with SAS to organize campus protests, FLOC backed farm workers in the campaign against Mt. Olive.

"FLOC offered to take Duke representatives out to the farms on at least three occasions, and all three invitations were declined," Wood said. "Duke did not make an effort to have either FLOC or farm workers at the table when they made this decision, and with that I'm disappointed. They have done nothing more than to offer the status quo."

Director of Duke Stores Jim Wilkerson said he did in fact visit some farms over the summer, as did Keohane, although not with any members of FLOC. Wilkerson also addressed concerns that the University's decision to lift the boycott leaves farm workers without a line of defense.

"The agreement that we have come to with Mt. Olive is a unique and potentially promising step to help improve the lives of farm workers, and I think that potential cooperation is worth pursuing to see what might come of it," Wilkerson said. "If we found that the agreement was being intentionally violated, the boycott would be reinstated."

In a separate but closely-timed action, the University also decided to reinstate its licensing agreement with the New Era Cap Company. Duke declined to renew its license last November following complaints from New Era factory workers about unsafe conditions and discrimination at the company's facility in Derby, N.Y.

Following an 11-month strike, the company reached a tentative agreement with the workers' union, the Communication Workers of America. The contract was ratified in late June.

"We were waiting to see what happened with the ratification, but basically all of the signals we had seen were pretty clear that the company is working with the union," Burness said.

New Era is one of 409 companies with licenses to make Duke hats, T-shirts and other products. Last year, retail sales of New Era-manufactured Duke products totaled about $60,000.

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