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Duke Lifts Boycott Of Mount Olive Pickle Company And Reinstates License With New Era Cap Company

DURHAM, N.C. -- Citing positive steps taken by both companies to improve labor relations and worker conditions, Duke University President Nannerl O. Keohane announced Thursday that the university was lifting its boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company Inc. in Mt. Olive, N.C., and reinstating its license with the New Era Cap Company Inc. in Derby, N.Y.

The announcement of the lifting of the boycott came after several meetings between Mt. Olive Pickle Company and Duke officials to discuss concerns about farm worker safety and other labor issues. In June, Keohane and other Duke officials visited Mt. Olive's processing facility and a farm of one of Mt. Olive's cucumber suppliers. The discussions led to an agreement in which the company pledges to formalize its commitment to ensure equitable working conditions for farm workers at its supplier farms. The company also pledges to work with Duke and others to address issues of concern for all farm workers in North Carolina.

The university boycott against Mt. Olive was affirmed this past March by Keohane following complaints about working conditions for farm workers in North Carolina, including farms that supplied the company with cucumbers. Keohane's decision to confirm the boycott followed complaints by Duke Students Against Sweatshops, a student group that promotes workers' rights, and other groups committed to farm worker safety.

At the time, Keohane said Mt. Olive was not accused of bad labor practices itself, but the boycott was consistent with the university's principles and policies to hold manufacturers of products that Duke licenses accountable for monitoring the working conditions of its suppliers. Keohane also pledged to work with Mt. Olive and others concerned with farm worker safety to develop appropriate monitoring and compliance programs, and noted that if these collaborative efforts were successful, the university would lift the boycott.

In an Aug. 29 letter to Mt. Olive President William H. Bryan, Keohane said she was impressed with the efforts the company has made to assist farm workers. The agreement with Duke states:

  • Mt. Olive will require its crop suppliers and growers to sign Statements of Compliance indicating they are in compliance with applicable federal and state farm employment rules; are not under investigation for non-compliance with these rules; and do not have unresolved compliance issues. Furthermore, the suppliers must notify Mt. Olive if any government agency begins an investigation of their farm employment practices. Duke will be allowed to review the Statements of Compliances submitted by the growers and suppliers.
  • Duke and Mt. Olive will work with food suppliers to implement strategies that can have a broad and positive influence on the farm industry in North Carolina, especially regarding conditions for farm workers.
  • Duke and Mt. Olive will work with state government officials to suggest policy steps that could improve the lives of farm workers and to improve public education about farm worker conditions.

"I am very pleased that we have reached this agreement," Keohane said. "Implementing these steps is evidence of our collective commitment to make a substantive contribution to the lives of farm workers in our state. I know, too, that these are very complicated issues, with many different facets. I applaud Mt. Olive Pickle Company's willingness to work with Duke University to seek meaningful courses of action, while being responsive to multiple needs and constituencies."

Bryan said, "While we were disappointed with Duke's announcement of the boycott in March, Duke pledged that it would continue to study the issues involved. We are grateful that President Keohane and her staff followed through on that pledge and were willing to reconsider the university's stance on the boycott. Our company has for a long time worked to encourage good practices among our suppliers and to work toward continued improvement in the agricultural industry. We are pleased to partner with Duke in ways that will truly benefit farm workers and North Carolina agriculture."

Mt. Olive Pickle Company products have not been used by Duke Dining Services for several years, but had been sold in Duke Stores up until the university's action in March 2002. Sales of Mt. Olive Pickle products had amounted to about $3,000 a year at Duke, officials said. Lifting the boycott will affect both Duke Dining Services and Duke Stores.

Officials said that the procedure of requiring a statement of compliance is believed to be the first in the agricultural industry and could be a model for other companies to follow. Keohane noted the new agreement with Mt. Olive was unusual in that, when fully implemented, it would involve government and university officials, growers, suppliers and labor leaders in creating a broad-based effort to improve the lives of farm workers.

In a separate action, Duke announced it had reinstated the license with New Era Cap Co. to manufacture Duke products. The license had been on hold since November 2001 because of complaints from New Era factory workers about alleged unsafe conditions and discrimination at the company.

In an Aug. 26 letter to New Era President Christopher H. Koch, Keohane said it has been apparent that company officials have made progress in discussions with labor leaders, including a new collective bargaining agreement, one of the major points of concerns.

"While I realize that all issues have not been entirely resolved, I applaud the efforts by the relevant parties to work seriously and cooperatively," Keohane said in the letter. "We are gratified that New Era is continuing to allow assessments of its working conditions by independent monitors, is working with representatives from the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium [organizations that monitor working conditions in factories], and has reached a mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement with your workers."

Retail sales of Duke products worldwide totaled $28 million in 2001. New Era is one of 409 companies to have licenses to make Duke hats, T-shirts and other licensed products. In 2001, retail sales of New Era-manufactured Duke products totaled $60,000.

In 1998, Duke became the first university in the country to adopt a code of conduct that required licensees, their contractors and sub-contractors to accept independent monitoring of working conditions. Interactions with both companies have been carried out within the guiding principles of that policy, and through discussions with Duke Students Against Sweatshops.

Note to editors: Copies of the letters to Mt. Olive pickle and New Era Cap can be found at and .