(Beyond Pesticides, February 9, 2009) Baldemar Velásquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), AFL-CIO, will be speaking at Bridge to an Organic Future, the 27th National Pesticide Forum, April 3-4, 2009 in Carrboro, NC. FLOC, founded by Mr. Velásquez in 1967, is both a social movement and a labor union focusing on migrant workers in the agricultural industry. The FLOC vision emphasizes human rights as the standard and self-determination as the process. The union struggles for full justice for those who have been marginalized and exploited for the benefit of others, and has sought to change the structures of society to enable these people a direct voice in their own conditions.
FLOC President Baldemar Velásquez was raised as a migrant farmworker. Since his childhood, he has worked in the fields and orchards of many states from Texas to the Midwest. He suffered the oppression and discrimination of migrant workers, and watched his parents humiliated many times from the injustices they experienced trying to support their family. Finally, after one incident when his father was cheated out of promised wages in front of the family, Baldemar began organizing migrant workers to stand up for their rights. Following the model of César Chávez, this protest led to the founding of FLOC.
As he struggled for justice for farmworkers, Baldemar realized that it was the agricultural corporations, rather than the growers, who control the conditions which affect farm laborers. The focus of FLOC became changing the structure of the agricultural industry through three-way negotiations among the major parties involved in agricultural production (farmworkers, growers, corporations). In 1978, Baldemar led over 2,000 FLOC workers on strike, the largest in agricultural history of Midwest, who demanded union recognition and a multi-party bargaining agreement. The following year, FLOC held its first constitutional convention as a labor union, and the workers voted to boycott Campbell Soup in their call for negotiations.
FLOC and their supporters struggled for eight years to win justice for farmworkers. In 1983, Baldemar led a 600-mile march of 100 farmworkers from Toledo, Ohio, to Campbell’s headquarters in Camden, N.J. Such actions and the pressure of supporters through the boycott eventually convinced Campbell Soup that the issue was not going away. In 1986, FLOC signed three-way contracts with Campbell Soup and its tomato and pickle grower associations in Ohio and Michigan.
These contracts changed the structure of agricultural industry, so that now farmworkers have an equal and direct voice in those conditions that affect their well-being. The FLOC movement has made labor history in bringing in different components of the industry into negotiated agreements. This victory was soon extended with Heinz and other major food-processing corporations in the Midwest, as well as fresh-market producers. Under union contracts, some 8,000 workers, many who had worked under an exploitive “share-cropping” arrangement, received employee status, and wages and benefits more than doubled. New housing in migrant camps and other conditions also significantly improved. Another important gain is that under grievance procedures, FLOC workers also have a direct voice in their day-to-day working conditions.
In 1998, FLOC began organizing farmworkers in North Carolina, the other major region in the U.S. where pickles are produced. After organizing thousands of farmworkers and a 5-year boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles, FLOC signed contracts in 2003 with the North Carolina Growers Association, which included workers involved with not only pickles, but also sweet potatoes, tobacco, Christmas trees, and other crops.
These contracts also set labor history, not only by changing the agricultural system but by also bringing in H2A “guest workers” under union contracts. Formerly, these workers had little say in who employed them or in the conditions of their work. Now through their union, they have their own direct voice, and are now directly involved in labor negotiations, grievance procedures, and building structures to address issues like transportation from their home areas in Mexico, health care, and immigration policies.
Baldemar’s vision and convictions continue to drive the efforts of FLOC in winning justice for migrant workers. He has become a recognized grass-roots leader and diplomat in the farm labor movement, immigrant rights movement, and social justice movements in the U.S. and around the world. His creativity and commitment to justice and human dignity have led to recognition by many labor, government, academic, and progressive organizations.
Beyond Pesticides’ 27th National Pesticide Forum, Bridge to an Organic Future: Opportunities for health and the environment, will be held April 3-4, 2009 at the Century Center in Carrboro, NC. This national environmental conference, co-sponsored by Toxic Free North Carolina, will feature panel discussions, workshops and talks by Jim Hightower and Philip and Alice Shabecoff. Register online, members $65, non-members $75, students $35.