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Sunday, May 1, 2005

The Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott: Misidentifying the Enemy

Why Did Labor Activists Target Cucumber Farmers?

Yellow and green jars of Mt. Olive Pickles are a familiar site in grocery stores throughout the southeast and beyond. As the second-best sell­ing brand of shelf-stable pickles in the United States, Mt. Olive Pickle is especially prominent in its home state of North Carolina, the source of one-third of the 120 million pounds of cucumbers purchased each year by the company.

Mt. Olive, and its 500 to 800 employees, make pickles. It does not grow the cucumbers from which its pickles are made. Instead, it buys cucumbers from independent growers in North Carolina and else­where. This system—from cucumber grower to pickle producer to consumer—seems simple and benign enough. However, for five years this economic rela­tionship had been the unlikely target for boycott by an activist group called the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

The origin of this boycott can actually be traced back to 1952, when the federal government instituted the H-2 program, allowing the attorney general of the United States to import foreign workers in times of labor shortage. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 changed this program into H-2A, the “guest worker” program still in place today.

H-2 and H-2A have allowed the evolution of a sys­tem of immigrant labor that can encourage grave abuses by employers. Though many landowners treat their immigrant hires with dignity and due care for their welfare, the very structure of the H-2A system opens the window to abuses. Since immigrant workers under this system cannot sell their labor to another employer if they so desire, but are instead tied to one employer only, some are indeed treated poorly.

Examples abound of immigrant employees cheated out of wages; denied adequate rest, food, or water; given no medical care on suffering injuries; and so on. Such abuses are morally wrong, but it must be noted that they are not tied to the free market. Quite to the con­trary, they are linked to an outdated government program that allows a slavery-like system in lieu of free-market competition.

Instead of attacking the real root of the problem, however, activists with FLOC in 1999 decided to chase after a shadow by initiating a boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle products. Why would FLOC choose to boycott Mt. Olive? I have had occasion to pose that question to various activists myself over the past few years, including those deeply involved in the boycott. I have always received the exact same answer: “We have to start somewhere.”

On the face of it, FLOC’s boycott of Mt. Olive labors under the following logic. Immigrant laborers must unionize to better their lot. In practical terms, unionization can only happen with the acquiescence of the landowners who employ migrants. Finally, the employers will not act unless pushed by an entity with power over them, namely, their main customer: Mt. Olive Pickle.

More specifically, FLOC’s website provides this answer to the question, “Why did FLOC target the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.?

FLOC has organized the Ohio and Michigan operations of Mt. Olive Co.’s competitors, such as Vlasic Co., Heinz USA Corp., and Dean Foods Co., which includes Aunt Jane Co. and Green Bay Co. The history of other industries, like manufacturing, shows us that if we do not organize in the South, companies will shift production to take advantage of lower standards of pay and working conditions.

In other words, realizing the power of the market, FLOC knows that once unionization has begun, it cannot rest until it has been implemented across an entire market sector or industry. Of course, just why FLOC decided to target cucumber farming in the first place, instead of the myriad of other possible agricul­tural endeavors, remains a mystery.

Somehow, though, this product has become a sym­bol for economic “reformers.” As one activist used to tell me, “We won’t succeed until we all pay five dollars for a cucumber.” By this she really meant that all pro­duce should cost more than it does. She believed that there was a direct correlation between low retail prices for food and low worker wages. She refused to enter­tain the theory that higher prices across the board would simply hurt the economy in other ways and not increase overall utility. In fact, higher cucumber prices, under an H-2A–dominated system, wouldn’t help most workers in the field at all.

Such activists would do well to remember Henry Hazlitt’s maxim from Economics in One Lesson, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or poli­cy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” But in the rush to make an example, or just to make trou­ble, flawed economic concepts become “issues” worthy of negotiation.

And indeed, the FLOC boycott did bring about negotiations. With continued negative press from the boycott—picketing of selected grocery stores, endorse­ments of the boycott by universities and religious denominations, and the like—Mt. Olive, as well as the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), which represents the state’s 1,000 independent growers, were brought separately to the negotiating table.

Mt. Olive had been adamant for years that it was simply none of its business whether or not a grower’s employees were unionized. The company chose only growers who signed compliance statements that they were acting in accordance with all applicable state and federal laws, and took other steps to ensure that it purchased cucumbers from law-abiding growers. But in the end, the topic of organizing workers was one the company had no say in, nor did it wish to have a say.

Agrees to a Plan

After five years of FLOC pressure, however, Mt. Olive agreed to a plan whereby it 1) expanded its code of conduct for North Carolina growers; 2) increased cucumber prices paid to suppliers by 2.25 percent annually for three years; and 3) provided a 3 percent annual supplement to growers providing work­ers compensation insurance coverage. At the same time, the NCGA negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement with FLOC, effectively unionizing the immigrant workers. With these two agreements in place, FLOC called an end to its boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company last September.

Apparently, the FLOC boycott did little to hurt Mt. Olive’s bottom line—after five years, jars of the com­pany’s pickles still line store shelves as they did in the 1990s. However, now that the boycott is over, chances are those same pickles will cost a bit more. Someone has to pay the extra cost, be it consumers, investors, Mt. Olive employees—or all three groups combined. And the migrant workers? Some may be better off, or maybe not. The main cause of their problems still has not been addressed—H-2A. Maybe someday labor activists will wake up to the fact that the free market is not their enemy—government bureaucracy is. But I wouldn’t bet the cucumber farm on it.

  • William Pike is interested in non-profit development, planned giving, higher education, and Christian organizations.

    In addition to a full-time planned giving position at DePauw University, he am also the pastor of two small churches and ordained in the Church of the Nazarene.