Boycott leads NORPAC to negotiate with PCUN

Nearly 10 years into a nationwide boycott of its products, Oregon's largest food processing and packaging cooperative has reconsidered its refusal to negotiate with farm workers. On Feb. 14, NORPAC Foods Inc. and Oregon's farm workers union announced a commitment to negotiate a set of labor guidelines, to be completed by early May.

Norpac, based in Stayton, Ore., has 240 grower-members in the Willamette Valley and employs 1,100 full-time workers at five processing plants, some of them members of the Operating Engineers and the Teamsters.

Woodburn-based Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, better known by its Spanish acronym PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), is an independent farm workers organization unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO's United Farm Workers (UFW).

PCUN called the boycott of Norpac in September 1992 because the company is the primary purchaser of vegetables grown at farms that fired union organizers and refused to bargain. PCUN is now suspending the boycott while negotiations take place.

"We are not only optimistic that farm workers on Norpac farms will have union agreements by the end of this year, but that it will serve as an opening for workers on other kinds of farms throughout agriculture in Oregon to follow suit," said PCUN Secretary-Treasurer Larry Kleinman.

Even PCUN was surprised at the speed with which a preliminary agreement was concluded. Governor John Kitzhaber arranged the first meeting at the beginning of February. Nine days later, Norpac and PCUN announced agreement. NORPAC's eagerness to reach agreement was likely the result of a deadline set by Sodexho, a major customer.

The boycott had won the endorsement of hundreds of religious, labor, community, and student organizations over the last decade; the campaign on college campuses proved to be the key. PCUN representatives visited hundreds of colleges around the country over the last five years to build support for the boycott.

Kleinman said many students have been politicized by the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Campaign for Labor Rights. "So when we talk- ed to them about sweatshops in the fields, many students could connect that to taking action on their campus about the food that they eat."

Sodexho, a multinational corporation based in France, operates cafeterias at as many as 750 U.S. college campuses. Fearing student pressure would lead to canceled campus food service contracts, Sodexho gave Norpac a deadline of Feb. 15 to work with PCUN to establish a collective bargaining process. Sodexho would have been the fourth major food service company to honor the boycott after pressure from student organizations. Palo Alto - based Bon Appetit was the first, in May 2001, followed by Aramark and North Carolina-based Compass/Chartwell's.

Once an agreement is implemented, and NORPAC has demonstrated its good faith by getting a yet-to-be-determined number of its members to accept the labor agreement, PCUN will terminate the boycott and call on customers and consumers to purchase Norpac products to show support for collective bargaining for farm workers.

The agreement will center on a process for unionization (such as how to define bargaining units and how to hold elections); it may also include a set of contract norms (such as "just cause" termination, a grievance procedure, and a floor for wages and benefits). The two sides also will agree on a commissioner to mediate disputes and implement the agreement, which expires Dec. 31, 2004.

PCUN and NORPAC are in effect inventing their own labor law. Farm workers were left out of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which set up a process for holding union elections. That means they have no government-sanctioned process for unionizing, but it also means they suffer none of the limitations on unions, such as prohibition on secondary boycotts - boycotts of companies that do business with the target of the campaign. That's why the moment PCUN's secondary boycott of Norpac Foods showed signs of success, the Oregon Farm Bureau, an agribusiness lobby group, organized a Feb. 13 rally at the State Capitol in Salem calling for the right of farm workers to unionize.

"Their agenda is to take advantage of the special session to simply repeal the one-sentence exclusion of farm workers from the state collective bargaining law," Kleinman said. "That sounds like a victory for farm workers, but it has two very serious problems."

First, the agency that would be responsible for overseeing farm worker unionizing, the Oregon Employment Relations Board, is set up to handle public sector collective bargaining: It conducts elections by mail ballot, has no bi-lingual staff, and is likely to have few resources in the current budget-cutting period. Second, Oregon's collective bargaining law bans secondary boycotts.

As a result, PCUN - and the Oregon AFL-CIO - oppose the Farm Bureau's bill, which it is pushing in the second special legislative session that began Feb. 25. Any new farm labor legislation would supersede the terms of the NORPAC-PCUN agreement, leading some observers to suggest the Farm Bureau may be trying to undercut the PCUN-NORPAC bargaining.

In the meantime, PCUN is pursuing a process for unionizing that would rely on its agreement with Norpac for enforcement.

Tanis Ybarra, secretary-treasurer of UFW, has been advising PCUN in negotiations. Farm workers in California won collective bargaining rights in 1975, including the right to use secondary boycotts, the right to an election within seven days (or two days if a strike is under way); defining the bargaining unit as all employees of the grower, without craft distinctions; and excluding labor contractors from the definition of an employer. Out of 700,000 agricultural workers in California, 27,000 belong to UFW.

March 1, 2002 issue

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