Immigrant Farm Workers Win Contract in North Carolina!
Mount Olive Pickle Boycott is Over
In the face of a growing boycott promoted by activists of many hues, but dominated by anti-capitalists and with a large anarchist contingent, the bosses have relented. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has been recognized as representing the workers in the cucumber fields of North Carolina.
According to a media advisory released by FLOC, the union “will oversee the employment of over 8,000 workers from most Mexican States who will come to work in North Carolina with H2A visas through the U.S. Department of Labor.” The advisory refers to these workers as being “almost exclusively undocumented.” Apparently the agreement openly acknowledges that the workers are “illegals” (to use the racist/nationalist parlance).
While it would be an exaggeration to call the agreement lucrative for the workers, it at least addresses the issues of wages, housing conditions, and abuse of workers by bosses. The contract provides for a 10% pay increase over 3 years, creates a standing committee to address housing improvements, and establishes a seniority system and formal grievance procedure. (The media advisory made no mention of protection from toxic pesticides, one of the central demands of the campaign).
Activists across the southeast and beyond are doubtlessly taking a deep, satisfied breath, and pausing to reflect on the five years of struggle that brought this victory. In the comments that follow, I will address the question of what this victory means in terms of the prospects for future worker struggles, and particularly for anarchist militants.
A Contract is not a Revolution
In the euphoria that follows a union victory, we anarchists must remind ourselves that winning a contract is a far cry from the self-organization of liberated workers that is our goal. In the fields of NC as elsewhere, the union leaders will represent the workers in negotiations with the bosses. The world we fight for is one in which there are no bosses, and the elected officials of any worker organizations are directly and immediately responsible to the rank and file. In unions, as in other organizations and society at large, we champion the practice of delegates with specific and limited mandates, against the American norm of “representative democracy” (in which elected representatives, in collusion with big business owners, in fact rule).
Still, victory in a struggle such as this has merit on two fronts. First, there are the benefits that accrue to the workers. This is not to be made light of. Latino “guest workers,” among the most oppressed of the oppressed, are not pawns to be played in games of strategy between CEO’s and leftists. As a result of this victory, people will eat better, children will have better clothes, and the housing of thousands of our brothers and sisters will improve. This is no small matter, and the fight would have been worth it for this result alone.
A further benefit is that class consciousness is enhanced. The fact that the bosses had to be drug, kicking and screaming to the negotiating table will be noticed by the workers involved, their many supporters, and (we hope) by interested observers. However Mt Olive Pickle Company’s public relations gurus may try to spin the deal, everyone knows that they are reluctant participants in the betterment of our Latino friends. The futility of the reformist school of thought, that claims that the way to improve worker’s wages and conditions is by appealing to the better instincts of the owners, is thrown into sharp relief.
Particulars of the Mt Olive struggle
What lessons can anarchists and other pro-worker activists glean from this particular struggle and victory? The circumstances are most unusual. During a period of general union decline, that has seen the rate of unionization in America fall to barely one in ten workers, a group of brown-skinned workers with no social privileges whatsoever, most of whom do not speak English and are not American citizens, have won representation and a contract. Not only that, but the victory took place in the heart of the anti-union South. In fact, the agreement is “the largest union contract in North Carolina’s history.” What are we to make of all this (beyond being awed by the courage and audacity of those who launched this effort to begin with)?
It would be a mistake to make overmuch of the progressiveness of NC. No, the power structure has not had a change of heart. The same white men are still in charge. Rather, we should surmise that a persistent and determined worker’s struggle can win anywhere, and look for what separates this effort from the unsuccessful ones. Why is FLOC winning while the UFCW flounders in its attempts to organize Wal-Mart, for example? Of course Wal-Mart is a more formidable opponent than even Mt Olive Pickle Company. But just as surely, the class solidarity that came into play in the recent FLOC campaign, is in large part responsible for its success. FLOC asked for and received the support of labor activists all over the southeast and the nation. This widespread support made the boycott many times over more powerful than it would have been on the strength of a FLOC press release alone.
Meanwhile, the larger and wealthier unions, those that represent a dwindling portion of the carpenters, grocery clerks, and electricians, continue to pursue a go-it-alone strategy based on market-share business decisions. This model makes no effort to call into play the concerted effort of workers as a class. It assumes that no one ever does anything, except as it directly impinges on their immediate personal interest. Of course, these are the values that capitalism promotes, and that too many take to be the “natural” order of things. And yet, as the FLOC struggle makes clear, there are many people who will devote a great deal of time and energy for the betterment of their fellows. If the business unions ignore this lesson (as they have in the past) their decline is likely to continue, whatever market strategies they may choose to pursue.
As anarchists, even as we champion our ultimate ideals of liberated self organization, we should continue to support limited tendencies in the direction of mutual aid and solidarity, as embodied in the FLOC struggle and victory. And we should join with rank and file militants of all unions, in their efforts to unseat the business managers who dominate them, and make those organizations accountable to their memberships. Let’s put some movement back in the labor movement!