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Ohio Contract Could Revolutionize Farm-Labor Relations

SOME unusual negotiations are taking place in northwest Ohio. A farmworkers union, a handful of tomato growers, and the Campbell Soup Company are trying to renegotiate a precedent-setting contract that expired last month.

Although roadblocks remain, an agreement is likely. More importantly, the working relationships among these unlikely partners have improved dramatically. If these improvements take hold industrywide, they could revolutionize the way farmworkers, growers, and processors work together.

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Changes are already evident in the relationship between some growers and the farmworkers' union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

``There's an air of respect,'' says FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez. Many of the growers remain suspicious of the union, but ``some have turned around and become quite sympathetic.''

``We have our differences of opinion,'' adds Wally Wagner, president of the organized tomato growers at Campbell's. But ``basically we are not at odds.''

The three-way contract has increased farmworkers' harvesting pay from about $3.95 to $4.50 an hour (growers' added costs are reimbursed by Campbell's), and has given growers more leverage with the company, Mr. Wagner says.

In the current negotiations, the growers are taking a hard line with the company. They insist that it continue its guarantee not to cut their tomato acreage for the next three years. Campbell's has so far refused to do that for the 1990 and 1991 crop, although it remains confident an agreement will be reached. ``I think we are well on schedule,'' says Jeremiah O'Brien, a Campbell's spokesman.

The more important test of these new relationships, however, is whether they will spread to the rest of the industry.

Soon after the original tomato contract was signed in 1986, the union struck similar deals with cucumber growers for Campbell's Vlasic subsidiary and H.J. Heinz Company. That interaction led to a joint effort by Heinz, its growers, and the union to lobby the state for special funds to improve housing for migrant workers.

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But the union and Mr. Velasquez have been stymied since then.

``He is a very charismatic-type person, but when it comes down to the nuts-and-bolts organization, it's not there,'' says Paul Slade, general manager of the Ohio Agricultural Marketing Association. ``He hasn't consolidated his gains.''

For example, less than half of Campbell's tomato and cucumber growers have come under a FLOC contract. Overall, the agreement covers less than 10 percent of the region's tomato acreage. And without organizing such industry leaders as Heinz and Hunt's in tomatoes or more of the pickle companies that buy local cucumbers, FLOC can't make much progress, many growers say.

``I don't foresee ... the Heinz company being too eager to put their [tomato] growers under a union contract,'' says Daryl Knipp, a tomato grower for Heinz.

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