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Getting labor agreements throughout the South with tobacco companies and farmers. Organizing cucumber pickers as close as western Michigan and as far as India. Joining or leading a larger labor movement.
Each is a possible future for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a Toledo-based union of migrant workers founded in 1967 by an idealistic 20-year-old who grew up as a migrant worker.
Fresh off his victory in obtaining labor agreements in the non-union state of North Carolina for nearly 8,000 migrant workers, FLOC leader Baldemar Velasquez told The Blade about a potentially bold agenda for the only major union headquartered in northwest Ohio.
There s no end to organizing fights looming out there, said the 57-year-old union president.
Whatever move is made to improve pay and other conditions for migrant workers, Mr. Velasquez said, the key for his union is to continue advancing beyond the initial instinct of targeting farmers, to aiming at the corporations that set the prices for the crops.
We understand, probably better than anyone, the plight of the family farmer, he said.
We re not going to have a lot of luck fighting over whatever crumbs are thrown on the table. You got to get to the crumb thrower.
FLOC, with 6,000 members in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, snatched its first members outside of the Toledo region with its agreement last month with Mt. Olive Pickle Co. and the North Carolina Growers Association.
The pact covers migrants from Mexico and spreads to the fields of a Mt. Olive supplier in Old Fort, Ohio.
Achieved after a five-year boycott campaign of Mt. Olive Pickle, the agreement calls for the country s second-largest pickle producer to give association members 10 percent more for their cucumbers, which is to be passed on to workers.
It also covers farmers of tobacco, sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, and 23 other crops grown by association farmers.
A similar agreement could be made with tobacco companies and growers in southern states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, Mr. Velasquez said.
Jos Cuello, associate professor of history at Wayne State University, agreed that was possible.
An industry battered by lawsuits on behalf of consumers stricken by cancer and other bad publicity doesn t need to add exploitation of workers to its publicity rap sheet, Mr. Cuello said.
Such claims helped win the battle in the right-to-work state of North Carolina with Mt. Olive. FLOC and its supporters used claims of mistreatment of migrants in its labor campaign there, which finally persuaded some farmers to try to clear themselves by signing an agreement that provided for an independent verification of living and working conditions for the migrants.
Boycotts to improve wages and conditions are nothing new for FLOC or its larger counterpart based in California, the United Farm Workers, founded by the late Cesar Chavez in 1962.
Boycotts are the only advantage for the workers who are not covered by federal and, in Ohio, state labor laws, said Jack Gallon, a Toledo labor lawyer who has helped the local union.
The United Farm Workers gained prominence primarily by boycotting California grape growers, and reached a peak membership of 80,000 workers in 1971. FLOC s seven-year boycott of Campbell Soup Co. resulted in a historic three-way agreement in 1986 with the company and northwest Ohio growers of tomatoes.
The tobacco companies are vulnerable, Mr. Cuello said of such publicity tactics. It s not a given that he will succeed, but his chances are greater now than 10 years ago and especially 20 years ago.
Another path for the Toledo union, Mr. Velasquez said, is to organize cucumber pickers in Florida, Mexico, or even India. The agreement with Mt. Olive Pickle allows the union to enter the territory of suppliers competing with those in the association, no matter where they are, he said.
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Adding members in western Michigan also is an option, such as cucumber farmers there who treat workers as independent contractors instead of employees, so they don t contribute to the workers Social Security or workers compensation systems, Mr. Velasquez said.
Migrants work not only in farm fields but in poultry processing, landscaping, construction, and other industries, and they are from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Caribbean countries as well as from Mexico.
That makes it impossible to follow the lead of other unions and go from factory to factory to organize, which is why FLOC started its organization efforts in North Carolina by signing up workers as associate members and provided a support system, Mr. Velasquez said.
A decade or more from now, the leader hopes his union either will join with a larger union, as he had once discussed with Mr. Chavez and the United Farm Workers, or be the lead for other grass-roots labor efforts. FLOC doesn t want to isolate itself, he said.
The point is you keep growing, you keep moving, Mr. Velasquez said. We not trying to become a monolithic institution. We want to become a movement.
Union presidents typically are more territorial, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.
But he said Mr. Velasquez has proven his mettle with the North Carolina agreement.
Of all industries, agriculture has been just about the toughest nut to crack, the professor said.
For FLOC to be able to win the type of agreement they did in North Carolina is both a victory in its own right and a precedent.
To do it required perseverance.
Longtime supporters such as activist and former migrant worker Sylvania Muniz-Mutchler are among those who are not surprised.
From one contract to the next, they ve just been tireless, Mrs. Muniz-Mutchler said. This is just one of many, and I m sure they ll be many more.
To win victories, Mr. Velasquez said, requires building leaders within FLOC. Although he doesn t see himself ever retiring from the farm worker cause, the Sylvania Township man said he would step aside as the union s leader if appropriate, just as he has with other organizations he helped establish, such as the local chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
One of the things that s a big priority for me right now is to flush out as much leadership as I can flush out, Mr. Velasquez said.
Though praised and admired by many for his leadership, the union chief said he is not working to reach the national notoriety attained by Mr. Chavez of the United Farm Workers before his death.
Instead, Mr. Velasquez said, he hopes to help groom the dozen Mr. Chavezes the farm labor movement needs.
The North Carolina fight allowed promising leaders in Toledo to take more responsibilities, the union president said, including Batriz Maya and Santiago Raphael.
Former farm worker Leticia Zavala, who migrated from Florida to northwest Ohio as a child with her family, took over organizing in North Carolina three years ago after graduating from college with a degree in business administration. She runs the office there and said Mr. Velasquez has been supportive, checking daily on the progress, needs, and health of the people there.
Though Mr. Velasquez is not likely to reach the national prominence of Mr. Chavez unless he wins the Nobel Peace Prize or some other similar distinction, said Mr. Cuello, the Wayne State professor, there are many parallels between the two.
Both used nonviolent means to win battles, have high moral values, and gave up potential economic gains elsewhere to head up their unions, he said.
This is not just a job for them, he said. It s a mission.
Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: email@example.com or 419-724-6087.