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FLOC: Approaching its 50th Anniversary

By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent

The past, present, and future of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) seem to be coming full circle over the next six weeks or so, as the 50th anniversary of the migrant farmworkers union approaches. Contract negotiations and organizing efforts ramp up over the next six weeks in the farm fields of North Carolina and boardrooms of global companies.

FLOC founder and President Baldemar Velásquez has been globetrotter of sorts, as he tries to work out deals for migrant farmworkers with both growers and tobacco companies. All the while, he’ll have to keep a keen eye on the immigration debate before the U.S. Supreme Court April 18, 2016 to keep in mind how their decisions on DACA and DAPA will affect his legions of migrant farmworkers.  A Supreme Court decision is expected by the end of June.
 


Baldemar Velásquez

Velásquez recently went on a three-day trip to Monterrey, México, to train veteran farmworkers as they got their guestworker visa paperwork in line. Those 50 to 60 handpicked FLOC representatives, in turn, will work to sign up and represent migrant farmworkers at more than 600 growing operations in North Carolina, and farms in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

“We use a three-day training to outline issues—growth issues for the union, what we need to do to build leadership, infrastructure within the organization—and we teach them skills there,” said Velásquez. “We did everything from how to process a grievance; defend a grievance; argue with supervisors, bosses, crew leaders, labor contractors, employers; what are the arguments against the union and how to overcome those arguments. We role-play them and we touch on the negotiations—what are the items in the collective bargaining agreement, what has to be modified and what new demands we should put on the growers.”

Negotiations began the day after Easter with the North Carolina Farm Producers Association, a three-year agreement that covers 10,000 workers. The FLOC founder and president stated that contract issues will “revolve around job protection.”

“They’re really villainized by a lot of people—including people from Human Rights Watch to the Southern Poverty Law Center—they’ve attacked these guest worker programs as slave labor programs,” said Velásquez. “They’re absolutely correct. But the solution’s not to eliminate them. The solution is to organize them and bring justice in those programs. Many people see that as an overwhelming challenge, so they give up on it and say it is better just to ban them. I don’t agree.”

One of the other negotiating items is release time for union business. Velásquez stated FLOC delegates will need the release time to expand and grow the union, as well as attend the group’s constitutional convention to be held sometime next year. 

The trained FLOC organizers currently travel to non-union farms on their days off with the help of staff to try to sign up and organize the migrant farmworker labor force.

“So workers are organizing workers to make the whole thing spread,” said Velásquez.

Velásquez then flew to London, England April 27 for meetings involving British American Tobacco, which owns a large stake in the Reynolds Tobacco Company. British Parliament is helping to push better working conditions for migrant farmworkers after the FLOC leader led a campaign to gain the attention of House of Commons members in recent years.

March and Rally in North Carolina on the Cinco de Mayo (May 5th)

The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. shareholder meetings follow soon thereafter, taking place May 5, 2016 in North Carolina—and FLOC will be nearby, picketing. British American Tobacco owns a 42 percent stake in that company, where a busload of Toledo-based supporters will travel to protest and then spend the night to commune with migrant farmworkers, which FLOC is fighting for the right to organize in the farm fields.

In the photo are some of the FLOC supporters as they boarded a bus from Toledo to North Carolina. They picked-up members of HOLA along the way, near Painesville, Ohio.  

“Right after the shareholders meeting, we’re going to take them on an immersion trip to a migrant labor camp, have a cookout, so they can see the housing and the labor camp and have a discussion with workers,” said Velásquez. “So the Toledoans who go down and protest, they can have that exchange in the labor camp so they can see the atmosphere, the environment where they have to live and work.”

The battle with RJR Tobacco has raged for seven years, now approaching the length it took to get an agreement with Campbell’s Soup—a fight only won after an eight-year struggle and union-led boycott.

“For a long time, the tobacco companies said they’d never talk to us. But now we’ve got them talking,” said the FLOC president, pointing out there are three main issues with tobacco production that need to be addressed. The first is human trafficking.

“Most of the workers are undocumented,” he said. “Then the ones who fall under guestworker visas are terribly exploited. They have no protections.”

Velásquez stated the second issue revolves around what he called “the squalor in the labor camps.”

“You can’t talk about health and safety without the ability to wash and bathe and keep that nicotine off your body and your clothes,” he said, explaining that once ingested, researchers at Wake Forest University have shown workers at tobacco harvest time ingest the equivalent of 22 cigarettes per day. That’s equal to being a pack-a-day smoker—or worse.

“If you don’t have the ability to bathe or wash your clothes, you sleep in it all night,” said Velásquez. “Then you keep ingesting nicotine around-the-clock instead of washing it off.”

The FLOC president stated that can lead to green tobacco sickness, or what migrant farmworkers refer to as “the green monster.” People get violently sick from it, Velásquez equating it to “the worst flu you ever had,” where exposed farmworkers vomit “green stuff.”

“Some workers can’t take it and they go back to Mexico,” he said. “So the health and safety issues involve ending the squalor in the labor camps.”

The third issue FLOC wants to address with tobacco companies involves ending “the fear of retaliation for complaining about even life-threatening issues.”

“The worst one is they’re sent back to México, never to be recruited to come back and work again to support their families,” he said. “In the guest worker program, employers can change workers every year if they want. They don’t have to bring somebody back. The moment one guy becomes problematic, he’ll be sent back, never to be asked to come back.”

FLOC intends to ask the tobacco companies for seniority rights for migrant farmworkers, which is the ability to reclaim the job each year if they remain “in good standing.” Current labor agreements in North Carolina have a “bid program,” where a guest worker can call the union each season and not have to wait on a recruiter to contact him in Mexico to fill out paperwork.

300 to 500 workers are recruited each year and recruiters normally exhaust their list. FLOC members with three years of good standing can recommend a relative to be brought up from Mexico as a new worker.

“To our workers, this is a big deal to them,” said Velásquez. “This is unheard of and probably the best-kept secret in [the United States]. Advocacy groups may have their Christmas list of things they would do to make the guest worker program more humane—we’re already doing most of them.”

The FLOC leader stated the group is still engaged in community organizing, even on the streets of Toledo with its Homies Union program, which targets at-risk youth. By organizing as a single, cohesive unit, Velásquez maintains those same poor youth can network and negotiate their way beyond poverty and gangs and life as a street thug.

“Everybody does that. Everybody joins a network. Everybody is in a union—I don’t care whether you call it the chamber of commerce, the country club, the Kiwanis,” said Velásquez. “People join groups to network, to coordinate the necessary relationships to overcome obstacles in their lives. That’s really living—and those are the vehicles that human beings use, and the poor have got to learn how to do that. This is what FLOC teaches. Whether they’re farmworkers or urban people, they’ve got to organize to help them navigate the obstacles in their lives.”

The Future

2017 represents the golden anniversary of FLOC’s efforts to organize migrant farmworkers and give them a voice in the fields. There will be a constitutional convention next year, which is held every four years. 400 to 500 delegates from all over the country will attend. Votes held at that convention will guide the work of FLOC leaders in the years ahead, just as the last convention is guiding current efforts.

“One of the resolutions was to take on the competitive production of cucumbers in North Carolina. That’s why we took on the Mt. Olive pickle company,” explained Velásquez. “It was competing with cucumbers in Ohio. If they buy them cheaper down there, it puts pressure on us losing production here in Ohio, so that’s why we organized the Mt. Olive pickle company. The workers here said we had to take on the competition. Who knows what the next convention will call us to do. That’s my job—to carry out those resolutions. Everything I do—even this urban organizing that I do now—has to do with resolutions that were passed at that convention.”

 

 

 
Copyright © 1989 to 2016 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 05/11/16 06:17:05 -0700.

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