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Published: Sunday, 10/1/2006

AFL-CIO leader visits Toledo to rally workers

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
About 500 migrant workers who are delegates at the FLOC convention march from SeaGate Centre to the Lucas County Courthouse to rally for migrant and immigrant rights. About 500 migrant workers who are delegates at the FLOC convention march from SeaGate Centre to the Lucas County Courthouse to rally for migrant and immigrant rights.
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With the AFL-CIO splintered last year by the defection of seven unions, the loyalty of Toledo's Farm Labor Organizing Committee and its continued strides in representing farm workers is important to the labor federation.

So important that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney visited Toledo yesterday to give FLOC $60,000 and pledge further support for the union led by Baldemar Velasquez, who received the federation's praise. FLOC is moving beyond Ohio and North Carolina in hopes of organizing migrant farm workers in Georgia, South Carolina, and elsewhere, which could at least double its membership of 11,000.

"At the AFL-CIO, we share your passion for organizing, and we are committed to helping this union continue to organize in the southern United States and all across this country," Mr. Sweeney told nearly 500 delegates yesterday at FLOC's 10th triennial convention at the SeaGate Centre.

FLOC first gained prominence 20 years ago when it reached a historic three-way labor agreement with Campbell Soup Co. and northwest Ohio tomato growers after years of strikes and boycotts. Others with operations in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan followed suit.

Two years ago, FLOC's five-year boycott campaign of Mt. Olive Pickle Co. led to a three-way agreement with the company and the North Carolina Growers Association. That pact was the top farm-worker victory nationwide in a decade and resulted in the largest union contract ever in North Carolina, the country's most union-free state, Mr. Sweeney noted yesterday.

"You are doing the organizing with brilliant strategies and hard work," he said.

John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, says FLOC is organizing with 'brilliant strategies and hard work.' John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, says FLOC is organizing with 'brilliant strategies and hard work.'
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As another way to expand the union, some FLOC delegates from North Carolina yesterday proposed having Mr. Velasquez and other union leaders discuss strategies to organize migrant workers throughout the country in other industries, such as construction and landscaping. Some delegates, meanwhile, proposed bringing so-called guest workers from Mexico to Ohio, where there is a shortage of workers in cucumber fields.

Seven unions, including the United Farm Workers, broke off from the AFL-CIO last year, saying the federation spent too much time with politics and not enough trying to reverse the trend of declining union membership nationwide.

Mr. Sweeney said yesterday the AFL-CIO has been committed to organizing for years, and FLOC is an inspiration and example for the entire labor movement.

Mr. Sweeney urged the crowd to take part in November elections, endorsing Sherrod Brown for U.S. Senate and Ted Strickland for Ohio governor.

Politicians have allowed corporations to reap more money while workers make less, and leaders overlook people who lack health care or live in poverty, he said.

Plus, Mr. Sweeney noted, the U.S. Senate gave final congressional approval to build a fence about 700 miles long on the Mexican border to curb illegal immigration. President Bush is expected to sign the measure, which some at the convention called racist.

"That's more than shameful," Mr. Sweeney told delegates, some of whom were guest workers from Mexico. "It's an international disgrace."

Delegates, who marched from SeaGate Centre to the Lucas County Courthouse to rally for immigrant rights, proposed a number of issues for the union to work on over the next three years.

Among them was establishing a pension fund for Mexican migrant workers; working to improve migrant housing conditions in Ohio; and winning other improvements in financial and working conditions.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com or 419-724-6087.



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