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A pickled democracy?

I am not going to talk about pickles. Since the commencement of the Mt. Olive boycott in 1999, pickles have never been the issue. I will neither wax prolific on the tragedy of North Carolina's farmworkers, nor will I claim to know what they need. This is not an appeal for charity; it is, rather, a call for empowerment. Last Thursday, President Nan Keohane announced her choice to remove Duke's support for the pickle boycott because she felt her own plan would be more effective. We all know that, as a person in power, Keohane has profound impacts within and outside our community. For this reason, I am gravely concerned about Keohane's misguided proposal and the unilateral action used to reach it.

Unlike the March decision to join the boycott, which involved all members of the Duke community, the company and the workers, last week's decision followed closed-door talks between Keohane and Mt. Olive. These business meetings, conveniently held during summer break, excluded both student and worker voices. For instance, when Keohane toured a farm to witness conditions for herself, she visited only Mt. Olive's best farm, guided by Mt. Olive and their farmers. She neglected to bring an interpreter, rendering communication with the Spanish-speaking farmworkers impossible. At the same time, Duke administrators refused three invitations to visit other Mt. Olive farms and speak directly with workers.

The recent retreat signifies a political cop-out. Keohane dropped the boycott called for by the workers in favor of her own three-point plan. Like many of North Carolina's ultimately ineffective laws protecting farmworkers, Keohane's proposal looks great on paper. However, the plan provides no definitive design for action, lacks mechanisms for enforcement, excludes worker input and merely serves to reaffirm the status quo. Upon close reading, the plan's absurdity is self-evident:

1) The agreement calls for Mt. Olive growers to sign a statement promising compliance with North Carolina's labor laws. This stipulation fails to address the conditions of farm labor that make those laws all but meaningless: the lack of enforcement, the insignificance of the penalties incurred and the absence of a grievance system. This first point also fails to realize that growers already have to follow the law. If the penalties of the law have failed to stop growers from violating workers' rights, a piece of paper reviewed by Duke will not change anything.

2) The plan's second point calls for Duke to improve farm worker conditions in North Carolina. The idea that Duke, starting from scratch, will be able to find and implement a solution faster than established worker-organizations, is ludicrous and arrogant. This attempt to usurp the workers' voice and replace it with the University's limited understanding of farmworkers' issues is paternalistic.

3) In the third point, Duke promises to suggest some agricultural policy changes. This statement makes no commitment for which Duke can be held accountable and fails to acknowledge the unlikelihood that meaningful change will come through these efforts (again, the main problem is enforcement and not the actual laws). Ignoring the fact that Duke has no history or clout in the formulation of agri-law, this statement implies that legislators should be listening to private universities rather than farmers and workers when writing farm-labor laws.

In silencing the worker voice in favor of the company handshake, Keohane reverted to the ease of paternalism. The goal is not to have Keohane give the farmworkers what she thinks they need. The goal is to allow farmworkers the empowerment that they seek, let them speak and bargain to protect their own interests, which in the end only they can know. Keohane fails to understand that the union is not just about a law being broken. The pickle boycott is about respect and empowerment.

Michaela Kerrissey is a Trinity sophomore and a member of Students Against Sweatshops.


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