Duke University's anti-union stance is unacceptable. President Nan Keohane recently lifted the Mt. Olive Pickle Company boycott, refusing to support the union that farmworkers have chosen to represent themselves. This decision is a huge step backward for farmworkers in North Carolina and the United States as a whole. The issue is not pickles, but rather that farmworkers in fields less then 90 miles away from Duke are working in terrible conditions, getting paid horrendous wages and are treated with little to no respect by farmers, companies or even universities.
Farmworkers in North Carolina are mostly Latino immigrants who have crossed the Mexican border to find a better paying job. Because of NAFTA, many Mexicans from the south are pushed out of formerly sustainable agricultural jobs towards the north to work in foreign-owned factories. Many attempt to cross the border numerous times before they make it safely into the United States Once they have reached their destination many are surprised at the working situation. This weekend when I visited a farm in Mt. Olive, I asked one of the farmworkers if he considered his job a good one. He smiled at me and said no.
Working 10 to 12 hours a day during harvest season, being exposed to pesticides and being paid between $4 to $6 an hour is not a good situation, even for the worker coming from Mexico where labor standards and wages are much lower than here. Essentially, the fields of North Carolina can be classified as sweatshops.
Corporations have repeatedly denied responsibility for these conditions. After all, they don't employ farmworkers; they only buy the crops that farmworkers pick. But, of every dollar spent on produce, 71 percent goes to the company, 23 percent to the farmer and 6 percent to the farmworker. Who is benefiting from the exploitation system? Corporations have the power, and therefore the responsibility, to sit down in three-way negotiations with farmworkers, farmers and the company in order to improve the labor conditions for farmworkers.
Keohane asserted that there are better ways of addressing these problems than a union. For example, she suggested increasing legislation, hiring more staff to enforce the laws that already exist and getting farmers to sign a statement of compliance stating they will follow the laws. All of these solutions ignore the root cause of the problems farmworkers face: They have no voice and no way to address grievances.
A union is made up of workers who represent their own interests and negotiate with company management. This structure is necessary because companies often seek profit at the expense of their workers. For farmworkers, a union is vital since farmers are free to fire and hire workers as they please. If a worker is hurt on the job, the farmer can easily fire the worker, leaving him with no job and no procedure with which to question the action. Legal rights are often not known, and workers who try to speak out are often blacklisted. In addition, as documented by Human Rights Watch, the H2A program in North Carolina allows farmers to call the North Carolina Growers Association and get another worker sent from Mexico to replace any fired laborers.
These conditions call for the university community to take action. We need to support the farmworker struggle and the Mt. Olive Pickle boycott. There is no easy way out. We must support fair working conditions for farmworkers and the right to organize for their own rights. Keohane cannot solve the problem by throwing money at the government to enforce laws or by making secret deals with the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. These solutions reflect an attitude that Duke can advocate for farmworkers better than they can for themselves. Duke administrators are not experts on farmworker issues, and their suggestions so far have shown a huge gap in knowledge. Who better to make working conditions in the fields than the farmworkers themselves?
Community groups, restaurants, groceries, religious groups, student groups and universities have already endorsed the Mt. Olive Pickle boycott in order to pressure the company to negotiate with the union. The boycott is a method that has been used throughout the farmworker movement and can be effective today. Duke has had enough paternalism and racism in its history-it is time to take a stand toward a more just society.