Column: Common goal, alternate methods

Demonstrations like the one some students have held to protest Duke's decision to lift its boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company shine the spotlight on issues that separate us. I think it's important for all of us in the Duke community to recognize that our disagreements are about tactics rather than goals.

President Nan Keohane and the rest of us who have been involved in this process agree strongly with the fundamental goal we share with the protesters and many others in our community: to help improve working conditions for farm workers. Any disagreement that exists concerns how to achieve that goal.

Over the past year, Duke officials have spent hundreds of hours doing research, visiting farms and meeting with Duke Students Against Sweatshops and others to learn about the complex issues that affect not only farm workers, but also growers, processors and others who produce much of the food we eat here in North Carolina. This past summer, Jim Wilkerson, Duke's director of licensing, and officials from the state department of labor toured two farms with a record of poor working conditions. Jim, who is a strong advocate for workers' rights, also met with the staff of Legal Services of North Carolina, an organization that assists farm workers, and spoke at length with experts from the U.S. Department of Labor.

President Keohane and several administrators also visited a farm and saw firsthand how some farm workers work and live. That visit and all of our discussions only strengthened our understanding and commitment in the administration to press forward in trying to ensure decent working conditions for the state's farm workers.

These efforts also gave us more perspective on the argument that this goal can be achieved only through collective bargaining of farm workers and leveraging a company like Mt. Olive Pickle to insist that its supplier farms go to the bargaining table. In contrast, we at Duke have said from the beginning that we recognize unionization as one possible answer but not necessarily the only answer. Even as the struggle over unionization continues, we think it makes sense also to try other approaches that might improve the living and working conditions for farm workers.

This past March, when President Keohane wrote to Students Against Sweatshops that we planned to extend Duke's boycott, she made this point explicitly and identified actions that Mt. Olive Pickle could take that would permit the boycott to be lifted. She also indicated a willingness to work with the company and other interested parties to develop approaches that could make a material difference in improving working conditions for farm workers.

Since then, Mt. Olive Pickle has agreed to each of the conditions identified in that letter. Its crop suppliers and their growers must now sign and submit statements indicating that they comply with all applicable federal and state farm employment rules and regulations. They also must notify Mt. Olive Pickle if they are currently under investigation by regulatory agency regarding non-compliance with these rules and regulations and affirm that they have no unresolved compliance issues that were cited in a past investigation. In addition, suppliers and their growers must notify Mt. Olive Pickle immediately if a federal or state agency initiates an investigation of their farm employment practices and immediately report any subsequent findings of non-compliance of farm employment rules and regulations.

This information will provide Mt. Olive Pickle with the opportunity to react to any violations, to assess its dependence on the product, to assist the grower in resolving the deficiency and/or to terminate the contract. As a means of verification, Duke will periodically review the statements of compliance submitted by crop suppliers and growers and visit farms that supply cucumbers to Mt. Olive Pickle.

Duke and Mt. Olive Pickle have also agreed to explore potential partnerships with government regulators and regional and national food suppliers who might help us implement strategies to improve conditions for North Carolina's farm workers.

Since August, there have been a number of positive steps. These included a meeting that President Keohane held with the president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and conversations with state officials in Raleigh and Mt. Olive Pickle to identify ways of working together to improve the regulatory process, such as by heightening public awareness and improving education regarding farm worker conditions.

In other words, the agreement was only a first step. If we see evidence that Mt. Olive Pickle is not living up to its commitment, President Keohane would be prepared to reinstate Duke's boycott. But we believe this approach has real potential to make a tangible improvement in the lives of the people we're seeking to help.

Our decision to take this approach was based not only on our activities of the past several months, but also on our experience working toward this general goal for many years in related arenas. Recall that Duke was the first university in the nation to require independent monitoring of the working conditions in factories around the world that produce products with the Duke name or logo. Duke was also a founding member of the Fair Labor Association because we believed the FLA had the potential to bring together workers rights advocates, business leaders and government officials in new ways to improve sweatshop working conditions. Our position then was controversial, with many students and advocates of workers' rights saying it was a mistake for Duke to join the FLA. We believe subsequent events have shown that joining the FLA was the right thing to do, as was our subsequent joining of the Worker Rights Consortium.

People of good faith, even those who share common goals, can agree to disagree. The Duke administration remains committed to working with Duke Students Against Sweatshops and others to achieve our common goals. We may not always concur about the best route to travel, but we will keep our eyes firmly on the ultimate destination, which is to help make life better for North Carolina's farm workers.

John Burness is Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and governmental relations.


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