Eight thousand farm workers won union recognition Sept. 16 with the signing of what the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) called the largest union contract in North Carolina history.

The pact with the North Carolina Growers’ Association (NCGA) made history on other counts as well. The new union members are “guest” farm workers from Mexico who come to work in North Carolina with “H2A” visas issued through the U.S. Department of Labor. They are the first such workers to be organized in U.S. history. The state of North Carolina has the most rapidly growing Latino population in the nation.

The contract came after years of organizing in the fields by FLOC and the union’s unrelenting five-year boycott campaign of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co., the nation’s second largest pickle producer. FLOC is based in Toledo, Ohio, a state which ranks number six in the nation in cucumber production. North Carolina is number one.

Although Mt. Olive’s president, Bill Bryan, maintained that the boycott had not affected his company’s sales, at the contract signing ceremony he declared himself “one pickle packer who’s glad to be out of a pickle today.” Bryan conceded that while he disagreed with the boycott, “I respect the dedication and persistence [FLOC president] Baldemar Velasquez and FLOC supporters have shown in pursuing their goals.”

Key to reaching an accord with the growers’ association was a side agreement by the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. for a 10 percent increase in both wages and prices to growers over three years. Most growers who contract with Mt. Olive are NCGA members.

The 1,000 growers who make up the NCGA routinely hire farm laborers for the H2A temporary guest worker program through recruiting companies in Mexico, FLOC National Boycott Director Beatriz Maya told the World. The North Carolina growing season is long, and the workers generally stay from March through December, moving from one crop to the next, including cucumbers, sweet potatoes, tobacco and Christmas trees.

Without a union, the workers have been subject to abuse on both sides of the border, Maya explained. Many tell stories of having to pay bribes in Mexico of up to $500 to get hired. Once on the job, there is no process to insure that they get the promised wages or that safe working conditions or even drinking water are available. Those who complain have found themselves blacklisted for the next year’s hiring. The abuses of the H2A program by recruiters, contractors, growers, and the NCGA will now be addressed through the union grievance process, said Maya.

The agreement will facilitate the development of a system of seniority based on number of years worked, growers’ requests and union membership. The new contract also provides for a role for FLOC in Mexico in overseeing the recruitment process. There, Maya said, union organizers will assure the elimination of the blacklist.

This historic moment is not the end of the story of the struggle for farm worker rights and economic justice, but the opening of a new chapter in the book, a FLOC statement said. The union organized a 79-member farm worker advisory group from which the negotiating committee was drawn. Now it will move to elect camp representatives for the more than 1,000 labor camps in North Carolina. Education meetings will be called for these same camps.

Only days after the agreement took effect, the union was already involved in processing grievances relating to wage rates, Maya said.

The signing ceremony, held on Mexican Independence Day at the United Church of Christ in Raleigh, N.C., was full of symbols and emotion. The tragic death of farm worker Urbano Ramirez in 2001 was remembered. Ramirez, a 34-year-old father of five, was found dead in a field by his co-workers. A victim of heatstroke or pesticide poisoning, he had been left to languish without medical attention after becoming ill while working for hours in the summer sun without water.

“We will never forget those who started this,” H2A worker Jose Hernandez-Coronado said. “We will continue struggling and give it all we’ve got, because there is still work to do, for ourselves and our families in Mexico.” He added, “We also sign this contract for the future generations who will come in the coming years.”

The union is pressing ahead with its legislative campaign for a road to legalization and citizenship for America’s millions of undocumented workers. FLOC President Velasquez noted that besides the H2A workers, the agricultural industry almost exclusively utilizes undocumented workers, “and the conditions of those workers are tragic and shameful.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.