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FLOC reaches labor contractor for migrant farmworkers in NC

Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent


Dec. 9, 2016: The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has reached a labor agreement covering more than 10,000 migrant farmworkers on 770 farms in North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee.


Baldemar Velásquez, FLOC founder and president, made the announcement during an annual concert known as “Songs for Justice” Friday night at the José Martínez Memorial Galeria, 1224 Broadway. Velásquez performed alongside the Aguila Negra Band, which doubled as a fundraiser for FLOC’s programs and the Center for Migrant Worker Justice. Over 200 supporters attended.


“It all started several years ago when we organized the boycott of Mount Olive Pickle Company here in Toledo and our shock troops were high school students,” explained Velásquez. “The Catholic schoolkids ignited the public school kids and we used to have marches along Broadway of 300 to 400 kids.”


The North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) is a non-profit growers’ cooperative that helps farmers get H-2A visas for temporary foreign agricultural workers, mostly from Mexico. NCGA is the largest user of the visa program in the U.S. The labor agreement is the fourth, four-year contract since FLOC first won collective bargaining recognition for migrant farmworkers there in 2004.


NCGA growers raise 25 to 30 different crops in addition to tobacco, which makes up about 75 to 80 percent of its efforts. But migrant farmworkers also pick cucumbers, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, raspberries, blueberries, and even Christmas trees.

Past union agreements have established an employment bid system allowing workers who successfully finished their last contract to submit a bid to return the following year. That allows workers from Mexico a guaranteed return to work the following season. The new contract expands that system based on seniority.


Workers can bid on jobs through the union for the following season without waiting on a recruiter to call them. FLOC and NCGA then review and approve the bid in order to prevent recruiter abuses of the past.


“We can monitor that recruitment and make sure it’s done. Otherwise, you’re left at the mercy of the recruiter in Mexico to call you,” explained Velásquez. “No other H-2A program in the United States has that right. We’re the only ones.”


The new agreement also gives migrant farmworkers grievance rights in Mexico against recruiters before they come to the U.S. to work.


Velásquez introduced a contingent of Migos at the concert, which is the North Carolina equivalent of the Homies Union that FLOC started in Toledo’s Old South End to mentor young people and teach them how to become community organizers.


“They’ve been out beating the bushes in the rural labor camps, helping our organizers and our very talented staff down there,” said the FLOC president, who called it a “breakthrough agreement.”


But the bigger breakthrough may be the start of talks with major global tobacco companies where FLOC is seeking the worldwide recognition of the right to freedom of association. The issue is how to implement that right, which would lead to tobacco farmworkers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. The template is the definition put forth by the United Nations International Labor Organization.


“How do they implement that, because over the past four years, we’ve pressed these tobacco companies, particularly Reynolds America, to put freedom of association in their protocols,” explained Velásquez in a phone interview. “They have to find a way to get their suppliers to recognize freedom of association, which is tough. These are international standards, which they’ve put into the corporate social responsibility protocols.”


The FLOC president stated the protocols are now in place because the tobacco companies were “embarrassed around the globe,” particularly in Europe and the United Kingdom.


“We’ve got it in place, but where’s the practical mechanism to make it real, particularly in the Deep South, which is all right-to-work and very anti-union,” Velásquez wondered. “So they’re trying to find a way to make it real on the ground there. They just don’t know how in the atmosphere that exists in that region.”


Those talks currently include Philip Morris Intl., Universal Leaf, and Reynolds America, among others.


“(The idea is) to find a way to have collective bargaining rights for workers acknowledged on farms that are contracted to them that are not part of the North Carolina Growers Association,” explained Velásquez.


The tobacco companies hold more sway over their suppliers than FLOC could on its own. Most of those growers come from other states, including southern Ohio, where there are dozens of small tobacco growers who each hire two or three migrant farm workers. NCGA has most of the market cornered, as 75 to 80 percent of the tobacco grown in the U.S. comes from North Carolina. But Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky have significant numbers as well.


That effort comes on top of a sign-up campaign among migrant farm workers in Kentucky, which has now reached several hundred FLOC members. Velásquez admitted he had been arrested more than 20 times for his efforts to organize the labor camps in various parts of the country.


“We’re working on a number of fronts to bring justice to marginalized people,” said Velásquez. “We have a moral mandate to lift up the marginalized people in our communities.”

Copyright © 1989 to 2016 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 12/13/16 17:21:15 -0800.




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