The Power of Organizing

Securing Farmworkers' Rights

An interview with Baldemar Velasquez

Baldemar Velasquez is president and founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) based in Toledo, Ohio, which has organized migrant farmworkers since 1967. Since 1971, FLOC has directed programs for worker education, food and fuel cooperatives and a legal clinic for workers, and has focused its campaigns not on the individual farms that employ migrant workers, but on the huge canneries which set the prices for crops. The Committee organizes over 5,000 workers on 120 separate family farms that are contracted with five major companies, including Campbell's Soup and its subsidiary, Vlasic. Velasquez is the son of farmworkers who migrated to Ohio in 1953. He began working in the fields with his family at the age of six. Velasquez was recognized by the Agricultural Missions of the National Council of Churches in 1986 for the unprecedented accomplishment of establishing multiparty collective bargaining agreements for migrant workers. He was given the Development of People Award by the Campaign for Human Development and U.S. Catholic Church in 1992 and the Hispanic Leadership Award by the National Council of La Raza in 1991.

Multinational Monitor: What are some of the obstacles that you face in organizing farmworkers?

 Baldemar Velasquez: The farmworkers we organize are migrant workers. As you can imagine, organizing migrant workers is extremely difficult. They work in Ohio for only six to 10 weeks, and then go back to their home bases in Florida and Texas. What FLOC did was follow them back after the harvest. We went down to South Texas and Florida every winter since 1968 to build an organizing base.

MM: Could you describe your campaign to organize Campbell's Soup workers?

 Velasquez: We successfully organized all the farms that were contracted with the Campbell's Soup company and demanded company-wide recognition. It was difficult because every one of those farms are small, private, family farms that are contracted to grow the crop for Campbell's . Campbell's Soup does not employ the migrant workers, the farmers do. But Campbell's is responsible for dictating crop prices to the farmers through very restrictive contracts that are signed before the crop is even planted. The farmers, in effect, don't even harvest their own tomatoes; they are harvesting a crop that has already been 100 percent bought.

In 1979 we demanded that the company recognize us, and that it sit down at the same negotiating table with the growers and ourselves and sign a three-party collective bargaining agreement.

We fought them on that issue for eight years. The company said it would never do it, that it was not the employer, that it should not have anything to say about what its suppliers' employees do or don't do. In 1979 we launched a national boycott of Campbell's Soup products, and in 1986 they did what they said they would never do: they signed a three-party collective bargaining agreement. There is an explicit commitment on the part of the company to cover the cost of the collective bargaining agreement.

 That campaign opened the door to negotiations in the pickle industry, and very quickly Vlasic, Heinz, Aunt Jane, Green Bay Foods and Dean Foods all signed in. At this moment we have all of the processors involved in buying pickling cucumbers in northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan signed under union contract.

MM: What organization governs your relations with Campbell's Soup?

 Velasquez: Since the National Labor Relations Act does not cover agricultural workers, we have our own commission, chaired by former Secretary of Labor John Dunlap, that basically acts as a National Labor Relations Board. Campbell's Soup agreed to recognize the authority of that commission in some way, either directly or indirectly, so that the commission can be used as a mediation and arbitration service when a contract is negotiated. That has worked very well for us.

MM: What working conditions do migrant workers face?

 Velasquez: Migrant farmworkers suffer probably the worst living and working conditions of any workers in the United States. Not only are you talking substandard wages, but you are talking about essentially a plantation arrangement. Workers live in housing provided by the growers. They have the status of indentured servants; they are obligated to do anything the farmer tells them to, or else lose their homes. Often they go into debt to the same grower. They have to work off the cost of transportation to and from the plot where they work. It is a situation where it is almost impossible to get any worker's voice heard. A worker cannot raise any complaint without the threat of getting thrown off of the job, or sometimes getting physically injured.

It is particularly difficult for migrant workers to stand up for their rights because they have their whole families with them. Sometimes it is a little easier to take a stand when you are there by yourself, but when you have got little children living on the employer's property, it is definitely a lot more intimidating to try and take a stand on an issue than if you went by yourself.

Stoop labor is very difficult. It takes great physical strength, it takes a lot of endurance, and not everybody can do it. Even at the height of all the unemployment in the northwest Ohio auto industry, where there are hundreds of auto workers losing their benefits, you didn't see auto workers running out to the fields to get these jobs. It is a very arduous lifestyle whether or not we have a contract.

 We have been able to improve the working and living conditions under our agreements. For example, we have created committees to pressure the industry to invest money in upgrading workers' housing, so instead of one-room shanties for entire families, we now have multi-bedroom units with their own self-contained showers and cooking facilities as opposed to the common-use facilities that they had before. We are beginning to see this new housing pop up all over northwest Ohio. But the housing project alone has taken us five years and over $5 million in investment so far. We are making some progress, but there is still a long way to go.

MM: What protections are in place to address the particular health and safety issues involved in the process of picking crops?

Velasquez: There are none. Workers have been categorized here in Ohio and Michigan as sharecroppers. That means that the Fair Labor Standards Act is not applicable. Migrant farmworkers do not benefit from protection of minimum wage, child labor provisions, workers' compensation or unemployment compensation, and they are forced to pay the self-employed share of social security. So you are talking about no rights, no health and no safety. If someone gets injured on the job, that's too bad. That worker's only option is to sue the farmer on an independent claim, and even if he could afford to do that, it wouldn't be worth his while, because it takes so long that he is out of the area before anything is settled.

Under our agreement, however, we have demanded to be recognized as employees. We are going to phase out this sharecropping, independent contracting arrangement. This year, 1993, is our target. This is the year when farmworkers will all be categorized as employees for the first time.

MM: Are there any other implications of the farmworkers being classified as independent contractors?

 Velasquez: For the purpose of social security, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has its own guidelines. But as an independent contractor and a sharecropper, a worker has to pay his own social security. In a situation where a worker does not pay social security, the IRS nails him for back taxes that he hasn't paid. So what does the worker do? He makes an arrangement to pay $50 a month, and at the end of the year, including interest and penalties, he owes more to the IRS than he did before.

For a worker to appeal that fine, he has to find someone to advocate for him in the legal system, to walk him through the regulations that define what is an independent contractor as opposed to an employee, through the IRS regulations, and by the time you do that, it is a year, two years down the road. In the meantime, you have got to keep making those payments, or else you get even more interest and penalties tacked on. Beginning to tackle this tremendous problem for the workers is an important victory.

MM: Does the company have the ability recategorize you as employees rather than independent contractors, or is that a government decision?

 Velasquez: It is a government decision, but the government never enforces anything anyway, so the farmers do anything they want to the workers. As a matter of fact, there have been advocates who have fought to secure the rights of workers as employees, and some victories have been won, in Wisconsin and California, for example. Even in those states, however, unless the law is enforced, the growers continue treating migrant workers as they always did. In Ohio and Michigan we mandated in our collective bargaining agreement that we would be given the rights of employees.

MM: Do you have provisions in the contract governing the use of pesticides?

Velasquez: Absolutely. We have standards that go far beyond Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

For example, when a field is sprayed, either by plane or by ground rig, we specify that workers must be notified in advance - including workers on the field that is sprayed and on adjacent fields, and workers living in labor camps adjacent to the sprayed field. The growers must notify them in person, regardless of whether or not those workers are employed on the farm that has sprayed.

We also require that workers on the mechanical harvesters be equipped with goggles, breathing masks and plastic gloves while sorting. Even though they don't come in contact with the sprayed crop, it is a precaution that we take.

MM: Is there any precedent for the multiparty agreements you have worked out?

 Velasquez: No, not at all. Not anywhere. As a matter of fact, when we began, organized labor said it was a ridiculous thing that we were attempting.

MM: Can these type of multiparty agreements be accomplished in the other food industries?

 Velasquez: Absolutely. I think probably we will be seeing a great deal more of it in the future, because most agricultural crops are sold as piece rate harvests in Florida, Texas and other places. Most of these crops have labor contractors, independent suppliers and independent contracts signed to grow the crop, all part of a deal with a large corporation.

For example, look at the Florida citrus industry: you have a company, you have a broker, you have a labor contractor, you have a grower. Apart from the labor force, you have got four or five parties involved. I think that multiparty agreements are probably the only way that farmworkers can negotiate with the appropriate people, make appropriate financial decisions and win.

MM: How have the three-party agreements affected your relationship with the growers?

 Velasquez: We are actually winning them over to our side, because in effect, we are protecting them as well. When the growers and the company sign a three-year agreement, that farmer has a guaranteed contract for those three years as well.

So after six years of collective bargaining, the grower association that we forced the company to create to sign as third parties in this agreement is beginning to act more and more like a union and is collaborating with us in terms of strategy against the company. So we've in fact done a lot to win them over to our side. Because although there are still big differences between us in terms of power, economically, they are not the enemy. They are not the ones who make the financial decisions. It is the processors who do that.

MM: How does international competition play into the equation, at a time when companies are scrambling to relocate production to low-wage havens across the border?

 Velasquez: That is precisely the problem. The companies can bring the product in. That is where Mexico and California enter the picture. They don't have to grow and harvest here in northwest Ohio. They can bring the crop in, package it in barrels and ship it to the Midwest for processing.

So it is imperative to organize those workers so that companies can't pit Mexican workers' low wages against ours. We have to raise the wages of workers who are in the competing areas and make them participants in the same collective bargaining struggles that we have. We do that, just as some other unions have coordinated bargaining with the national producer here in the United States. They coordinate their union contracts - they call it pattern bargaining - in the auto industry. Why can't we do that with agricultural workers internationally? We have to open ourselves up to collaboration with other unions. We must be unselfish with respect to helping another union get a better deal, so that we're in a strong position to get a better deal ourselves.

MM: What are some of the arrangements you have developed with the agricultural workers' union in Mexico?

 Velasquez: We have worked with the Campbell's Soup workers in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, with whom we have a very good relationship. We compare negotiating strategies. If Mexican workers tell us that they are working too cheaply in Mexico, we tell them that they can afford to ask for more. And they do. And they are getting it.

We are going to extend that relationship to three other Mexican states, Queretaro, Guanajuato and Michoacan, with pickle and cucumber workers. Vlasic Pickle and Dean Foods are major buyers of pickles from those states.

We are meeting with the union leaders in those three states to set out the same relationship we have with the Culiacan workers. We are looking forward to coordinating not only our negotiating, but in this case, actual joint organizing because the crop is harvested in Mexico and shipped to south Texas, where there is another crop harvested by Texas farmworkers. So to organize those workers in Texas, we have to be organized simultaneously with the workers in those three states in Mexico so that the company does not have a way out of getting its pickles and using that against workers that may want to start an organizing drive.

MM: Are you undertaking other organizing drives outside of the Midwest?

 Velasquez: Absolutely. We're going to start one next year in North Carolina, which has a pickle and cucumber crop that is competitive with Ohio and Michigan.

MM: What are your relations with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and other farm labor organizations?

 Velasquez: We don't have any formal relationship with the UFW, although we know them and worked with them in Texas, where they have had a staff for quite some time. We have encouraged our members to join their efforts down there. And they have been very helpful to us with strategies up here and in south Texas. Other than that, they have been isolated in California; and we have been isolated out here.

MM: How are your relations with the rest of the labor movement?

 Velasquez: The AFL-CIO has given us a charter as a directly affiliated union, which is unusual since the organization does not issue those charters any more. We did not want to be under the wing of another big union; we wanted to leave ourselves open to merge with other farmworker unions that may spring up in the future, and/or with the UFW if the union leadership were interested.

MM: Can you discuss the absence of a legal structure protecting farmworkers? What would you like to see developed?

 Velasquez: Absolutely nothing. I've seen that laws overall do more damage to the farmworkers than good.

It is very difficult for an established union to succeed at collective bargaining, much less a politically powerless group like the farmworkers. The politicians would eat us alive, and might put us in a worse situation than we are in with no legislation.

For example, a collective bargaining law that was passed in Arizona made it almost impossible to organize farmworkers for 10 years or so in that state. And in Washington state, farmworkers killed a bill for collective bargaining legislation that would have put the issue into the hands of politicians who know absolutely nothing about agriculture. They would not have the passion to fight for the farmworkers: for them, it would be a political deal to make them look like liberals to earn votes from urban communities. But they would not be accountable to the farmworkers.

So I suggest staying away from legislative reform: go by the law of the jungle out here, win some contracts, and maybe down the road, as collective bargaining relationships are established, we can legislate that relationship into some kind of bill.