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Boycotts, budgets garner attention of social action board

9/17/2003

By Joretta Purdue*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
General Board of Church and Society. Photo number W03004, Accompanies UMNS #442
HERNDON, Va. (UMNS) - Good Christians often disagree, especially when discussing social concerns.

That was the case when United Methodists who determine the actions of the denomination's international social advocacy agency gathered Sept. 11-14 for their semi-annual meeting.

Although unanimous in their opinions on several matters, a potential boycott drew extensive discussion by voting directors of the Board of Church and Society. Other subjects, including globalization, homelessness in the United States and support for farmers, garnered more general agreement.

After careful explanations of the agency's need for budget cutbacks and staff reduction, needed actions passed without argument on recommendation of the finance committee.

Voting directors readily agreed to abandon an agency boycott against Kraft Foods entered a few years ago, but ongoing consideration of labor conditions on farms that supply the Mt. Olive Pickle Company was another story.

The Kraft boycott involved tobacco-marketing practices by Kraft-owned Philip Morris, which has changed its name to Altria. Proponents of dropping the boycott noted changes in the public and political climate regarding tobacco. While emphasizing that they do not endorse Altria or its practices, they said they are satisfied with worldwide progress that makes the boycott no longer an appropriate tool.

Voting directors had more difficulty with a proposed boycott against Mt. Olive Pickle Company aimed at improving the working conditions of farm laborers involved in growing and harvesting cucumbers on farms that have contracts with Mt. Olive.

At a previous meeting, board members had heard the point of view of the president of the pickle company, and a visitation team from the board and the North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference had been with workers days before the most recent meeting. The board's Peace with Justice Work Area recommended that directors authorize the board's executive committee to join the boycott if further progress is not made by early 2004.

Laura Little, a board member from Greenville, N.C., and a member of the visitation team, objected. Little read a letter to Bishop Marion M. Edwards of Raleigh, N.C., from the Rev. Charles Smith, director of connectional ministries for the North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference, reporting his observations as part of the visitation team and questioning the effectiveness of the proposed boycott.

Louis Caballero of Century, Fla., cited the board's March 2001 vote to boycott if conditions did not improve and noted that improvements have not been made.

"A secondary boycott is wrong," Hank Shelton, a lawyer from Memphis, asserted, noting that agriculture is not included in the church guidelines about secondary boycotts. Others questioned Mt. Olive's responsibility, since it does not own the land where the workers are employed.

Steve Sprecher of Portland, Ore., chairman of the Peace with Justice Work Area, said documents from the pickle company indicated that it was adding worker treatment to the conditions of compliance in grower contracts, but remained unwilling to engage in conversation including workers.

Visitation team member Jo Ann Yoon Fukumoto of Pearl City, Oahu, Hawaii, said one woman there expressed appreciation for food and clothing from the church but pleaded for the chance for workers to provide for their own families.

After almost an hour on the topic, board members voted 18-17 to authorize the executive board to join the boycott if progress is not sufficient by early 2004.

Much of this meeting was devoted to preparing resolutions that will be forwarded to the next General Conference, the denomination's highest legislative body, for consideration when it meets April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh.

A new resolution reflects the cessation of U.S. Navy bombing practice on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and calls for cleanup and a return of land taken in 1941.

Likewise, a new resolution on terrorism for General Conference consideration recognizes recent terrorist attacks including those of Sept. 11, 2001, unequivocally condemns all acts of terror and urges world leaders to repudiate violence. It supports the United Nations as an agency for conflict resolution rather than resorting to war or terrorism and encourages participation in the "Decade to Overcome Violence" program of the World Council of Churches.

These resolutions become United Methodist recommendations or policy only if adopted by General Conference, whose own legislative committees may recommend passage or rejection when they forward resolutions after their own alterations.

Board members also approved rewritten or newly created resolutions on such widely diverse topics as alcohol advertising, the United Nations, suicide and separation of church and state.

Extensive discussion in committee sessions focused on efforts to find solutions to the financial dilemma facing the board. In the opening session, the board's top staff person, Jim Winkler, had told voting members that, like other denominations and church agencies, the social action board is facing a financial crisis.

"The combination of reduced World Service funding for the board during the 2001-04 quadrennium, the forced spend-down of our reserves, the rise in health care expenses and the decline in the General Agency Benefit Trust has hit our agency all at once," he said. The board is allocated about $8 million from the World Service Fund for 2001-04, down from $10 million each for the preceding quadrennia. "Ours is the only agency receiving fewer World Service dollars now than it was receiving in 1988."

He said the 2005-08 budget being sent to General Conference, the church's highest legislative body, includes an allocation of $11.7 million for the board, but $16 million is required to maintain the current staff levels.

Acting on recommendations of the personnel and finance committees, board members passed measures including the transfer of $185,000 from board designated reserves to the 2004 operating budget and a move of $600,000 from the emerging issues category to undesignated net assets to balance the 2003 operating budget.

The 2004 budget the board approved was $1.3 million less than the 2003 budget.

In other business, directors voted to partially fund requests from six organizations through grants from the Ethnic Local Church Fund. A total of $67,500 was awarded in response to applications totaling $223,000. Some grants address particular areas; others, like a $15,000 grant to the Inter-Ethnic Strategy Development Group to assist ethnic caucus volunteers who will observe General Conference, serve the broader church. Three grants extend the assistance of the global church to justice issues in Vieques, Korean immigrant communities, and work with families affected by atomic testing in the Marshall Islands.

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