Fighting for Farmworkers' Rights for More Than 40 Years

07/26/2010 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is a three part series of an interview with Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet. By Ronit Ridberg

Name: Baldemar Velasquez

Affiliation: President and Founder, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, FLOC, AFL-CIO

Location: Toledo, Ohio

Bio: Incensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farmworkers, Baldemar Velasquez founded the union of migrant farmworkers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. FLOC works tirelessly to give voice to migrant farmworkers across the country and include them in decision-making processes on conditions that affect their lives. Mr. Velasquez is a highly respected national and international leader, not only in the farm labor movement, but also in the Latino and immigrant rights movements.

What is your background, and how did you come to found FLOC?

My family was recruited into the migrant worker stream back in the early 50s from South Texas to harvest tomatoes, sugar beets and other hand-harvest crops in Ohio, Michigan and the Midwest. That began my long odyssey to this work, getting stranded in Ohio and not making enough money to get back to Texas. In those early years we didn't even have our own transportation and we got so in debt one fall, we had to stay the winter and borrow more money from the local farmers just to stay alive. Then we worked off the winter debt the next summer -- working for free in the fields. We then stayed another winter and were in debt again, we sort of became like indentured workers for about seven years.

Just to get out of debt we traveled the summers around the mid-west to find the back-to-back-to-back crops. In Michigan with the cherries and the strawberries, and trimming Christmas trees then back to Ohio for the sugar beets and the tomato and cucumber harvest, right into the fall and picking potatoes for the local farmers. So that's how we just tried to keep out of debt and try and survive the winter so we could survive the following summer.

The silver lining in all of this was that I was able to learn English and stay in school - it was cold at home and warm in the schoolhouse so I kept going back to school. I ended up going to college -- almost by accident! I didn't think that college was for Mexican kids, I thought it was for white kids, and my senior literature teacher said, "Why not?" My grades were good enough. During college vacations, I would go back to the fields to work and by my senior year I was already organizing my dad and his friends, and my mom and her compadres in the fields.

Can you describe some of the biggest challenges and most common abuses faced by farmworkers in the United States?

Well there's the outward abuses like stealing your wages, getting cheated in your pay, employers cooking the books and falsely reporting the wages of workers. And a lot of times they hide it -- like in our family, our whole family worked together but only my dad and my mom would get a paycheck. So they reported it as individual earnings, but it was really the collective earnings of all of us who worked on piece-rate crops. We were regularly cheated out of minimum wages. And as long as people were working piece-rates, getting paid by the bucket, by the acre, by the lug, by the crate, by whatever container or unit we were working and getting paid for, the record keeping of hours was very sporadic and very distorted.

Then there's the disregard for the health environment of the workers, the labor camps where many times the legislation was so lax that you could house people in chicken coops and barns and still qualify to have registered labor camps. And even then, whatever laws were in the books were never enforced anyway. So we grew up in very bad labor camp conditions. So there's that environmental factor.

And then the human abuse, the tongue lashings that workers would get, that women would get from unscrupulous labor contractors, crew leaders, field men and even some farmers. One of the things that would really shock me and anger me was the way they would talk to my mom, in ear shot of my little sisters who were all smaller. Well, it makes a young man very angry, and you want to do something but you don't know what to do.

So those are the kinds of abuses that we grew up with. By the time I was old enough to think about this seriously, I thought well, when I grow up, if I can do something about this, I'm going to do something!

How common is child labor is in agricultural production today and do you think labor policies can address the problem?

You know, we've had child labor laws on the books for a long time. And the problem with any kind of laws governing the agriculture sector is the lax enforcement, or no enforcement at all. I started working the fields when I was six. By the time I was eight or nine, I was already carrying an adult load in terms of ability to harvest the number of lugs or crates or baskets or hampers or whatever.

And as far as putting more inspectors in the fields to enforce child labor laws, it's a two-edged sword. The reason parents have their kids in the field is not because they like child labor, but really in our family, the alternative to that was not eating. And that's what it boils down to. And it's very easy to say, "Yeah let's pass some laws and get really tough enforcement and big fines for those who have kids in the fields," but if you get the kids out of the fields -- okay, so then what? You let them languish in the labor camps all by themselves? They have nothing to do. Or you take away an adult wage-earner to stay home and baby-sit him? Take away that income from the family?

You cannot talk about eliminating child labor without dealing with the other family impacts -- for instance family income. The kids may not create as much income as an adult worker, but it is income. And we used to pool our income as a whole family to make ends meet, to stay alive. And so you've got to deal with the wage issue. You've got to make the job where adults can earn a living so the kids don't have to be in the fields and you can still provide for them, you can still give them food. All of these have to be answered together -- you can't just say, let's eliminate child labor. All these advocates in Washington talking about child labor laws and so on, well-intentioned as it is, they're not addressing the other issues.

What are some of the health hazards that farmworkers face?

Every crop has different foliage and its own chemical make-up, and sometimes people have allergies and react to them. Not to mention the residue that might be on some of those crops -- the fungicides, the pesticides that they spray on them, and the lack of enforcement on reentry time in the field. You can have all the regulations you want -- if you don't have a way in which workers can police that and be able to decisively do something without fear of retaliation, then the laws aren't going to do you a lot of good.

I've watched over the years well-intentioned efforts like the Environmental Protection Agency's Worker Protection Standards, and the required training of workers around pesticides and so on. And they have put millions into funding organizations to train workers about pesticide safety. Well, here's my question: A worker gets out of bed in the morning, and he sees a farmer who just finished spraying a field, and the crew leader takes him out there and says, "Okay -- time to go to work". And he's educated about the reentry time, and knows it is too early to go back in. (The more toxic ones have longer reentry periods -- two, three-day reentry period). And sitting on the edge of the field -- the difference between a trained worker and an untrained worker, is either that you're knowingly going to go in and get poisoned, or you're not knowingly going to get poisoned. The guy that knowingly goes in and gets poisoned, what's his choice? What are his options? Not go and maybe get fired? And get retaliated against? What do you have on the books to protect him from being retaliated against, and how is he going to process that -- file a complaint with the Department of Labor, who might respond in two weeks? And then you have to pack up and go make a living with your family somewhere else. Where is the follow-up on that particular incident? What good does it do you that day? That's the problem.

So there's the problem in terms of the chemicals, the residues on the plants. There's also the climate issue. We have had nine deaths in the fields of North Carolina in recent years, and seven of them from heat stroke. This summer already, among our membership, we've had two heat stroke cases: One guy is still in a coma, and the other fellow just came out of a coma. We have him in a hospitality place down where we're working on his workers' compensation case and in the past those workers who didn't have an organization, well they were out of luck. They were forgotten, put on the bus and sent back to Mexico or just left to languish wherever they are.

So a lot of that is just due to pure neglect. The farmers can be held accountable, but workers have to have a right to make decisions about when they can walk out of a field, when they can file a complaint or a grievance with the employer. Already this summer we've probably processed a couple of hundred complaints from workers.

Part II: Giving Farmworkers a Seat at the Negotiating Table

Can you give a few examples of some of the successes that FLOC has had in giving farm workers a voice and including them in decision making processes?

One of the central parts of any agreement that we negotiate with employers is that you've got to have a strong grievance procedure, where workers can complain without fear of retaliation. It's a tool that workers have when they get out of bed in the morning. I've got a problem -- I can complain, and I have a process to do that. Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. We try to follow up complaints locally with an employer.

In the case of a worker on the edge of a field that was just sprayed with pesticide, he has the right to refuse to go in there. And to notify the crew leader, to notify the union, to say "I'm not going in there -- you just sprayed, this chemical requires a 24-hour reentry period, and I'm not going to go in there within 24 hours." And if the employer disagrees, he can take it up to the second step, where we bring in a second party, where they review the case and those parties make the decision and the first party has to comply with it. That is the ruling. And if you don't come to an agreement, we kick it over to arbitration. Depending on the severity or the urgency of the case, it needs to be taken care of within a 48-hour period. So that's what the agreement says, and that's the process we follow.

What success have you had working with food companies?

FLOC pioneered the supply chain agreements back in the 80s. The first big fight was the Campbell's Soup Company. And of course, their first argument publicly was, "Oh, we're not the employer. We just buy it from suppliers, we can't get involved in that -- it's like telling our book binders from our printing company what to do with their employees." We heard it all. But the bottom line is, the supply chain is the procurement system to get the raw products that they need to process in their food products. And that procurement system is created by human design. It did not happen accidentally. They are the ones who designed it, they are the ones who can redesign in.

That was our argument, and it played out in public opinion, we had enough people boycotting that company. We did a boycott that lasted seven years, until we concluded the first multi-party supply chain collective bargaining agreement in labor history. The company, their growers, suppliers and the farmworkers sat around one table and negotiated one agreement that all three parties could live with.

So we've done that with Campbell's -- we've totally radicalized the way the price of tomatoes was structured to benefit the small farmer. And the differences between the wage increases and the medical benefits that we won were subsidized and paid for by the company. So the farmers had happier workers who were better taken care of and were therefore more productive.

In the cucumbers, when we took on the Vlasic Pickle Company, the Heinz USA, the Green Bay Foods (now Dean Foods) and Aunt Jane's Pickle company -- we completely radicalized the structure of how cucumbers were being harvested to do the pickles. We eliminated the old sharecropping system that the industry used to circumvent the Fair Labor Standards Act. The workers were actually categorized as sharecroppers, because the piece-rate earnings was 50% of the value of what they harvested. But they did a lot of work for free as a result of that -- like the preparation of the vine, the vine training, the hoeing, all of that was done for free, and not paid for because the workers were technically independent contractors, self-employed. But we changed them to an "employee" category, which made them subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, the minimum wage laws and the child labor laws.

When we changed the workers' status from independent contractors to employees, that eliminated all the free labor for one thing. And it made it too expensive for the farmers to have children in the fields, because then you had to pay them minimum wage, as employees! But in order to facilitate what to do with the kids, we got a public-private partnership with the companies and growers, and the workers, and we negotiated with the National Migrant Headstart program to increase the number of facilities in Ohio to take in the extra kids that they didn't have space for in the Headstart programs in Ohio. And the compensatory education programs that would take kids over six years old. Now there was a one-year turnaround time to get the money pipeline flowing to Ohio from the federal government, so in that first transition year, we got Heinz, Campbell Soup and the Dean Foods company to fund a contract with the Headstart Program and the elementary school in Sandusky County in Ohio to open up for the summer, to take those kids in on a one-year basis. And we got the expanded services the following year under the regular Headstart program. So we took care of the kids, we took care of the increased income, because the workers were being treated as employees -- so workers were then subject to workers' comp., unemployment compensation and social security.

Of course, the companies did this under duress because of threats of boycotts from us. But we made them do a study over the first three years of the agreement -- and the Heinz company did a very careful study for those three years, and they came out and released a report in 1990 indicating that productivity had risen 46 percent. So their increase in price to pay for the cucumbers was well worth it for them.

How do global agricultural and trade policies affect your work in the U.S.?

It is catastrophic. The globalization issue is forcing us to do more of this supply chain thinking, and that we really have to hold them accountable. For instance, these companies get their cucumbers during the deep winter months (when they're not available anywhere in the United States) from as far away as India and Sri Lanka. The problem is how do we interfere with the conditions of their purchase agreements of these cucumbers and work through these brokers? And I think the answer to that, taking a lesson from the Students Against Sweatshops, is not only to create codes of conduct, but we have to have a partnership with our counterparts in those countries.

We have experimented with tomatoes, cucumbers and now tobacco in Mexico -- that's the nearest source for American companies of those products that we compete with. For instance, in 1989, we negotiated a deal with the Mexican unions that produce, cut and process the tomatoes that were processed into paste in Mexico, to be used by the Campbell Soup company in Ohio. We did a campaign with those counterpart unions in Mexico to increase the workers' wages and benefits by 18%, in order to make it a little bit more equitable in terms of the competition. In other words, the competition has to be like a pendulum upward, not a pendulum downward where they're using us against each other to see who can work for the cheapest.

So we have to have these international agreements signed and hopefully give leverage to our counterpart workers to be able to have freedom of assembly and rights to organize, in order to not create the wage gaps that are so glaring at this point.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agriculture, labor or immigration policies to improve working conditions?

When you talk about policies, I assume you're talking about governmental policies, but I think there has to be a change of thinking. I think for too long our public policy has really been one of subsidizing the agricultural industry and marginalizing and institutionalizing the poverty of agricultural workers. For instance, many of our progressive liberal friends who push for different government programs, subsidies, even the Headstart program for instance, food stamps, the federally funded migrant clinics and so on -- all of these things are really not subsidies to the farmworkers. They're really subsidies to the agricultural industry.

Just take something simple like food stamps: Why do farmworkers qualify for food stamps? Look, you're dealing with a group of workers who are not unemployed, they're not disabled, they're some of the hardest working people in America. People should beg the question, why is it then that from that difficult and hard work that they do, they can't feed, educate and clothe their own family? Why do they have to rely on government hand outs and food stamps and migrant clinics and so on? Why can't they, off the sweat off their back, be able to provide food, shelter, and health care for their own families?

The reason is because we have an agricultural system that is dysfunctional, that is lopsided. And we favor a public policy that institutionalizes what is, instead of shifting the paradigms of the way the industry itself is structured. I'm not just talking domestically, this is global. That's why I feel we've got to do something about it. It starts with having an initiative by workers themselves, and then we can have an impact in the structures of agriculture and radically change it.

What role can American food consumers play in supporting agricultural workers' rights?

Historically, what the farmworker movement has done, going back to Cesar Chavez's boycott of grapes, and other vegetables and fruits - we mobilize consumers around those issues. We highlight the mistreatment of workers, and consumers can play a hand in correcting it by boycotting the related products that we're referring to.

But now there's a growing consciousness around the country, and that's backed up by experts in sales and marketing who study the bar-coding of purchases. More than a third of all consumers are conscientious buyers, and they are looking for healthy lifestyles, healthy environment and good treatment of other human beings. And it's true of the animal industry as well -- the Humane Society and others are very prominent. Consumers want to buy things that are not made by exploiting people, animals or resources, so we're trying to capitalize on that to create a win-win-win situation, to give employers and food companies an incentive to do things in a better way.

How can consumers know how workers were treated?

We definitely need something along the lines of coffee's Fair Trade approach, to make agricultural products produced in a similar vein. I think that will resonate with consumers and that's the direction we would want to go.

How can Nourishing the Planet readers get involved in supporting farmworkers?

Help us with our fight with the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. We're organizing 20,000 tobacco cutters in five southern states who are working in intolerable conditions. You're talking about an industry that makes billions and has not been hurt by this recession, and it is a national shame that farmworkers are still suffering the same conditions that Edward R. Murrow filmed in 1960 in that Harvest of Shame.

And the way they can help is to help us go after the financial partners of that company, which is the J.P. Morgan Chase bank. We are organizing a boycott of that bank until they tell the Reynolds to sit down and talk with FLOC about the workers at the bottom of their supply chain. And we're going to trigger that boycott September 7th, the day after Labor Day, and we're recruiting pledges of people if they have accounts or they know people who have accounts: churches, unions, community organizations, with Chase, to pledge to withdraw those and do business with another bank. And send the rich bankers and Reynolds that if you're going to exploit farmworkers, you ain't going to do it with our money.