USCC Watch: Bishops in the Soup

Poverty, disarmament, South Africa: every diocesan justice-and-peace commission will be worrying about those subjects this winter. The really ambitious activist needs a new cause, something a bit recherche, to keep him one step ahead of the crowd. Unless I’m mistaken the next such cause is the Campbell Soup boycott.

Actually, boycotting Campbell is not a new idea; the boycott was started in 1978. The purpose of the boycott was to help union organizers force Campbell to the bargaining table. (In fact, Campbell had been bargaining all along, but leave that fact aside for now.) In May 1985, Campbell and the organizers signed an agreement, and the end of the boycott seemed clearly in sight. Just then, the Catholic bishops of Ohio declared their support for the Campbell boycott. Soon a group of Texas activists, Camino a la Paz, was drumming up support for the boycott in that state. Expect to hear about it in your own diocese soon.

Let me explain the background. Years ago, a group called the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) began trying to unionize migrant farmworkers in Ohio. It wasn’t an easy task. Migrant workers are, by definition, not permanent employees; they stay on Ohio farms only temporarily, picking the tomato and cucumber crops (in Campbell’s case) before moving on to the next harvest. And Campbell Soup does not own the farms; the corporation contracts with dozens of independent farmers across Ohio.

However, FLOC president Baldemar Vasquez saw a potential shortcut toward effective organizing. One large corporation could put pressure on all those independent farmers, forcing them to recognize FLOC as the workers’ representative. But how could he persuade a corporation to exert that pressure? By organizing a boycott.

Which corporation should be boycotted, then? At the time, Vasquez was concerned primarily with migrants working on the Ohio tomato harvest. Campbell Soup is not the leading purchaser of Ohio tomatoes; that honor goes to Heinz, while Campbell’s supplies account for only 2% of the state’s migrant farmworkers. Nor does Campbell have an anti-union reputation; the corporation has 12,000 union workers of its own. But for boycotting purposes, Campbell was ideal. Heinz, as we all know, sells 57 different varieties, and even an ardent boycotter might have trouble remembering all of them. But Campbell Soup comes in those distinctive red cans: an easy target.

(Actually, the situation became more complicated with time. When FLOC extended its scope to include Ohio’s cucumber farms, Campbell became much more heavily involved. Vlasic, a Campbell subsidiary, buys cucumbers from Ohio farmers who account for another 15% of the migrant farmworkers. To complicate matters, a federal court ruled that cucumber pickers are independent contractors, not employees of the farm where they work. And a complete boycott of Campbell products, of course, would include those Vlasic pickles, as well as Godiva chocolates and a host of other products put out by Campbell subsidiaries. But at the outset, at least, those were minor considerations.)

Campbell resisted FLOC’s demands for one simple reason. As a corporate fact-sheet explained, “Campbell has never forced any of its employees to join a union. It certainly can’t tell someone else’s employees to join, or not to join, one.” But the corporation was willing to help migrant farm-workers in various other ways. Campbell expressed its willingness to support a new collective-bargaining bill in the Ohio legislature. It appointed an ombudsman to work full-time with migrant farmworkers and their farmer-employers. Eventually, reluctantly, the corporation began bargaining with Vasquez and FLOC.

As nearly everyone knows, life is not easy for migrant farmworkers. On the other hand, their life is also not as hard as FLOC has occasionally claimed. For instance, FLOC has widely circulated a claim that the average wage for migrants is $1.96. That figure was derived from research conducted by three young students in 1976. The students themselves warned that their data might not be exact, and their survey was not scientific. And at the time, nine years ago, the minimum wage was only four cents higher than that $1.96 figure. Today, Campbell scrupulously checks farmers’ records to ensure that all migrant workers receive at least the minimum wage.

Since a minimum-wage income leaves many needs unanswered, Campbell has also set up several different programs for migrant farmworkers. The corporation subsidized construction of new housing units for migrant workers; offered health insurance for workers and their families; operated free day-care centers for workers’ children; set up a scholarship fund at Ohio State for children of migrant workers. Still, the boycott continued—not because Campbell’s efforts were inadequate, but because they were irrelevant. After all, the purpose was not to secure higher wages or better conditions for those workers. The purpose of the boycott was to help FLOC organize.

Months passed, and nothing changed. Finally, Vasquez convinced the National Council of Churches to take up the issue, and the Council in turn brought Campbell to the bargaining table. In time, an agreement emerged. A commission was established to organize and supervise union elections on farms contracting with Campbell. The chairman of the commission is John Dunlop, the Harvard professor and former Secretary of Labor; Campbell and FLOC each can appoint four members to round out the commission’s membership. (FLOC has picked Monsignor George Higgins, the long-time USCC staffer.) The agreement went into effect on July 1. As this article is written, the commission should be sorting through ballots from the first farm’s election.

When the Catholic bishops of Ohio took up the question of boycotting Campbell, they knew that Campbell and FLOC had already signed this agreement. So why did they take up the cause, when the issue was apparently resolved? The bishops’ statement is short enough to be quoted in full:

The Catholic bishops of Ohio support a boycott of Campbell Soup Company products. The bishops point out that the primary issue of the farmworkers’ struggle is centered on the fact that farmworkers are seeking the same legal rights to organize and bargain collectively (and legal protection afforded workers through the National Labor Relations Board) which all other workers have been granted. Farmworkers were the only group denied such protection when the NLRB Act [sic] was enacted 50 years ago. Since other means have failed, the boycott of Campbell products is the farmworkers’ chosen means of bringing national attention to this prolonged injustice.

In case you are wondering, Campbell Soup Company did not set up the National Labor Relations Board. The U.S. Congress did that, through the Wagner Act of 1935. Why should Campbell Soup be punished for what the 74th Congress did? That point remains—let’s be charitable—obscure.

Maybe migrant farmworkers need more protection. Possibly new legislation is needed; that point is worth discussing. And certainly the Church can help the migrants (who are predominantly Hispanic and Catholic). But boycotting Campbell does not help migrant farmworkers; it just hurts Campbell. And what is that corporation’s crime? Simply that it stands in the way of an ambitious man who wants to become a union leader.

In all probability, the fight against Campbell Soup will continue for some time. Quite possibly Vasquez will continue pushing the boycott until FLOC actually wins an organizing election. But if anyone thinks the boycott is promoting the cause of social justice, he is sadly mistaken. In past years, unfortunately, quite a few justice-and-peace people have supported mistaken causes with great enthusiasm.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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