Church 'key player' in farm worker campaign
The UCC is being credited in part for securing a significant victory for impoverished farm workers in North Carolina.
On Sept. 16, a five-year boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company ended with a union-contract signing held at Community UCC in Raleigh, N.C., a staunch supporter of the farm worker campaign.
The three-way agreement ensures a 10 percent wage increase over three years for cucumber pickers whose farms sell to Mt. Olive, and, in response, the company will increase what it pays to growers by 10 percent. A new grievance procedure will protect farm workers who question injustices or abusive conditions, ensuring that workers can speak for themselves without fear of retaliation, says Edith Rasell, the UCC's minister for labor relations and community economic development.
The agreement ends the practice of grower-initiated "blacklists"—a barrier that kept some workers from obtaining official guest worker visas. "This has been a longstanding problem because growers blacklisted workers who objected to abusive conditions," Rasell says.
Growers will be required to share more and better information about pesticides, and a three percent bonus will be paid by Mt. Olive to any farmer who offers workers compensation insurance coverage.
The agreement also includes a victory for religious freedom, because a "freedom to worship" clause guarantees workers at least one half-day off per week.
The agreement eventually could cover 8,000 to 10,000 workers in over 1,000 farms, making it the largest collective bargaining agreement in North Carolina history, says Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the union that led the boycott.
Instituted in March 1999, the boycott was endorsed by the UCC General Synod only four months later, making the UCC the first national denomination to offer its support. Moreover, the UCC is widely credited for leveraging additional religious support.
At the UCC's urging, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the National Council of Churches endorsed the boycott in 2003 and the United Methodist Church signed on earlier this year.
"The UCC was a very key player because they were the first national denomination to endorse the boycott," Velasquez told United Church News. "To us that was very key to have that spiritual authority endorsing the issue. It's not any one thing, but [the religious community's support] was a major source of irritation to them."
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