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Protesters: 'Say no to Mt. Olive'

About 150 students, professors and community members gathered on the Chapel Quadrangle at noon Tuesday to protest the University's 14-month-old decision to drop a boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company. Many protesters argued that the company's workers needed more say in labor agreements.

"What's outrageous? Sweatshop wages! What's disgusting? Union busting!" protesters chanted as they waited in the rain for speeches to begin. Organizers from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee--a division of the AFL-CIO--handed out information sheets detailing their stance.

"The alliance [of the University and Mt. Olive] purported to improve farm worker conditions, but the most important actors, the workers and their representatives, were excluded," read the information sheet.

In August 2002, the University lifted its Mt. Olive boycott when the company pledged to establish methods for ensuring equitable working conditions for farmworkers and to require supplier farms to submit statements of compliance with federal and state employment rules. But farmworker advocates deny any substantial changes in the workers' plight--their ultimate goal, not just compliance with federal law.

Associate professor of history Gunther Peck, a speaker at the event, said the absence of the workers from the labor discussions was unjustifiable and called the August 2002 agreement a smokescreen for the company.

Protest organizer Chris Paul reiterated the need for inclusion of farmworkers in any dialogue. "Until the workers have a voice, there will be no change," he said.

Senior Vicki Kaplan also spoke at the protest, going beyond criticism of the current agreement and decrying the University's inactive stance in addressing injustice in general.

"This reveals the hypocrisy of the education we're getting," Kaplan said. Students are taught about social justice in class, she added, but when it comes to the real world and activism, the University is complacent.

Jim Wilkerson, director of Duke stores, acknowledged in a press release that the University is a substantial lobbying force for change, but said that officials and protesters differ in tactics. "Our focus as a University is indeed on the bosses," he said. "We believe by working with Mt. Olive, government officials and others, that they and we can make significant progress."

During the protest, however, Kaplan characterized the Duke-Mt. Olive agreement as merely a pledge by the company to a private university to follow federal law--therefore, pointless.

"Unfortunately, the only thing these huge corporations are going to listen to is the consumers [and not laws]," said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. "This self-policing thing is just a joke."

Aside from worker representation in dialogue, FLOC's goal is "fair"--not just legal--working conditions. John French, an associate professor of history, said he had visited one of the "labor camps" in eastern North Carolina, where eight or 10 farmworkers lived in one old sharecropper's shack. The shack had no electricity, no running water and just a hole in the floor for a toilet.

"The conditions are not just bad," said Paul, who also visited several farms. "They're downright dangerous." Workers suffer from pesticide poisoning and green tobacco sickness, he said, because they do not have water with which they can wash off their hands. Paul also noted instances of farmers supplying their workers with beer for payment.

In the end, though, Paul emphasized that the protesters' primary concern is that workers are given a voice with which to make their own changes. Without that, a pledge from farmers to follow the law is empty.

"More important than better working conditions, in a tangible sense, is letting the workers have a voice," Paul said. "The workers I met with are very afraid."

After the quad gathering, protesters marched to the Bryan Center and protested in front of the Lobby Shop, which sells Mt. Olive pickles.

Cindy Yee contributed to this story.

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