The Farm Labor Organizing Committee Is Making its Mark in MexicoNarco News]
By Erin Rosa
FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez at a March Against Tobacco Giant RJ Reynolds.
DR 2007 Photo courtesy of FLOC.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO; NOVEMBER 4, 2010: Members with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), an organization that works to better the labor conditions of migrant farm workers in the United States and Mexico, were in Mexico City this week to draw international attention to organizing and winning in both countries.
For more than forty years FLOC has brought corporate behemoths like Campbell’s Soup and Heinz to their knees, winning collective bargaining agreements for immigrant laborers who picked tomatoes in the Midwestern United States. Now the group, which totals tens of thousands of members, has its sights set on organizing workers in North Carolina who pick crops for tobacco company RJ Reynolds. They’ve traveled to the city to demand justice for a FLOC organizer who was brutally slain in the Mexican city of Monterrey, in the northern US-Mexico border state of Nuevo León.
Baldemar Velasquez, the founder and president of FLOC, agreed to sit down with Narco News and talk about why he came to Mexico. Velasquez, a US citizen who was born into a migrant family, was in the city to testify as part of the International Court of Conscience of People On The Move. The court was sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to host people and movements from around the world to discuss human rights violations in Mexico and beyond. During the event, Velasquez and members of FLOC told the audience about the death of Santiago Rafael Cruz, an organizer with the group who was murdered in 2007. So far there has been no real investigation or accountability for whoever committed the crime, the committee’s president says.
“It’s important to present the case of our assassinated staff person to this tribunal: Three years ago, Santiago Rafael Cruz was bound, tied and beaten to death in our union office,” Velasquez says. FLOC has set up an office in Monterrey to avoid the abuses and fraud that come with recruiting agricultural guest workers who travel to the United States. “It didn’t make these recruiters very happy with us,” says the FLOC president. “We keep pushing for [law enforcement officials] to resolve the case. It’s important to keep this case prominent.”
FLOC was founded by Velasquez and other workers in 1967 in response to the low wages and harsh conditions suffered by migrant workers in the field. The group has been conducting persistent and strategic nonviolent campaigns to unionize migrant farm workers and better their working environment, offering higher wages, workers’ compensation, and a direct voice in labor conditions. The committee first began their civil resistance with a strike against 33 tomato growers in Ohio, which succeeded in winning collective bargaining agreements.
After that, FLOC began to focus on the corporations that used the tomatoes in their products. “You keep on trying to understand the opposition, and we learned those farmers were contracted with these big tomato companies, ” says Velasquez. “We said, ‘This is not going to work,’ trying to get the employers to give us the kind of wages we deserve. So we looked at the contracts. We gotta go to Campbell’s Soup, we gotta go to Heinz.”
In 1978, the committee began organizing the workers who picked crops for Campbell’s Soup, and more than 2,000 laborers voted to strike at Cambell’s field operations in Ohio. The next year the strike had turned into a full-fledged boycott of Campbell’s products. Organizers applied pressure in two distinct and coordinated ways: They would go to farm after farm to rally support for the strike, then they would organize numerous civil, labor, and religious groups to hit Campbell’s financially with the boycott. To sustain the movement during the strike, FLOC would use allies from across the country to raise money for food and other things that were needed by the strikers.
The Campbell’s campaign went on for years, and workers had to exercise patience and discipline with their tactics before they finally paid off. It continued until February 1986, when the corporation finally collapsed under the pressure of the organized boycott and strike. The result was a collective bargaining agreement where more than 3,100 farm workers in Michigan and Ohio joined FLOC and were guaranteed minimum earnings, unemployment, and Social Security benefits. It was an unprecedented contract, according to Velasquez, because it was the first time that three parties—the migrant workers, the farmers and the food companies—had come together on an agreement to ensure better working conditions.
Winning the Campbell’s contract lead to other agreements with food companies like Heinz and Vlasic Pickles, whose businessmen had watched as the FLOC dismantled Campbell’s over the last seven years. “I called up Heinz the day after we signed with Campbell’s and said, ‘You guys are next. What are you going to do? Do you want to fight or do you want to talk?’” Velasquez says. “The vice president in charge of negotiating with unions started laughing and said ‘Well, we watched the last few years of that Campbell’s thing and it’s ridiculous to put our company in that position.” The FLOC had a contract with Heinz within a year.
In 1998, when FLOC began a campaign against Mt. Olive Pickles in North Carolina, they used similar tactics, with one exception. This time they brought the boycott to the grocers who sold the crops and pressured major grocery chains to stop selling Mt. Olive pickles, adding another layer to the campaign with a secondary boycott. The victory didn’t happen overnight, but it did take less time than the Campbell’s campaign. FLOC signed another three-way agreement between the workers, Mt. Olive and the North Carolina Growers Association in 2004. The contract was historical because it covered 8,000 foreign workers who had come into the United States on H2-A visas to do agricultural work. It was the first time that guest workers were allowed to have a say in their working conditions.
As a part of the North Carolina contract, FLOC opened their office in Monterrey for guest workers in Mexico. “The agreement covers everything in their employment process from the time they’re contacted in Mexico, so we put in the contract that they would be able to file grievances in Mexico,” says Velasquez. After receiving hundreds of grievances, FLOC decided to create what members call a “hiring hall” in the office, which allows workers to trigger their own employment rather than relying on third parties that may cheat, abuse or kidnap them.
With a current campaign underway to unionize farm workers who pick tobacco in North Carolina, Velasquez is working to bring more of an international focus to FLOC’s successful organizing efforts. Impunity for human rights abuses and assassinations in Mexico is “totally common,” he says. “That’s why we have to organize harder, and make sure that our fights and our campaigns are public and international in nature.”