Giving Farmworkers a Seat at the Negotiating Table

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Below is the second and third of 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.

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.

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 people 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.

To read more about workers in this food system, see In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

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