Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights: An Interview with Baldemar Velasquez

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Velasquez BaldemarIncensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farmworkers, Baldemar Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. FLOC works to give migrant farmworkers across the United States a voice by including them in decision-making processes on conditions that affect their lives.

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 1950s from South Texas to harvest tomatoes, sugar beets, and other hand-harvest crops in Ohio, Michigan, and the Midwest. That began my long odyssey in 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 [that] 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 Midwest to find the back-to-back crops. In Michigan, [we worked] 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.

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 comadres 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. 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 of the workers. Many times the [state] legislation was so lax 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.

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 earshot 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.

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

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.

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 - in our family - the alternative 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 babysit them? Take away that income from the family?

You cannot talk about eliminating child labor without dealing with the other family impact - 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. You've got to make jobs 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. 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." 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).

But 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, seven of them from heat stroke. This summer already, among our membership, we've had two heatstroke 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. 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.

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 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. 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 cucumber campaign, when we took on the Vlasic Pickle Company, Heinz USA, 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 earning was 50 percent 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 that was 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.... 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. 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 was well worth it.

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. 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. How do we interfere with the conditions of their purchase agreements of these cucumbers, and work through these brokers? 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 percent 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.

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.

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 handouts 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 healthcare 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 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.

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.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute. Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about improving livelihoods through sustainable agriculture.

This article appeared in its original form on the Worldwatch blog Nourishing the Planet. For permission to republish this article, please contact Danielle Nierenberg at dnierenberg@worldwatch.org