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Published: Friday, 10/18/2013

FLOC re-elects Velasquez

Workers’ group renews fight against tobacco firms

BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Editor's note: This article has been updated.

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The Farm Labor Organizing Committee has re-elected Baldemar Velasquez as its president and has vowed to “increase our fight” against tobacco companies.

FLOC believes some tobacco companies have engaged in human trafficking, forced workers to live in squalid housing, and retaliated against whistleblowers.

Last weekend, 400 FLOC delegates — Ohio, North Carolina, and South Carolina farm workers — participated in the organization’s 12th Quadrennial Constitutional Convention in North Carolina, a two-day event held once every four years.

“We need to end the abuses and oppressive situations that exist,” Mr. Velasquez said, explaining that workers have a right to unionize and negotiate. “We need to eliminate the indentured servitude.”

FLOC has been in negotiations with tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc. during the last year.

Both sides acknowledged this summer that little progress had been made.

FLOC delegates directed Mr. Velasquez and other officers to enter into similar negotiations with Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer.

Rolanda Rascoe, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris, USA, stated in an email that Philip Morris and Altria's other tobacco companies “interact regularly” with FLOC.

One way is through the Farm Labor Practices Group that Philip Morris created in 2011 in response to a report FLOC released on the impact of tobacco growing on human rights in North Carolina.

Mr. Velasquez maintains the tobacco corporation has done little beyond that, and that it is now trying to undermine FLOC.

Verite has a 2011 Social Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Geneva-based Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and 2005 Social Capitalist awards by Fast Company magazine and the Monitor Group.

The tobacco company cites its hiring of Verite, an international organization based in the United States, as a step forward.

Verite specializes in helping companies address problems and improve their public image.

Mr. Velasquez and other FLOC representatives met with Verite and union officials on Wednesday in the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington..

“Verite is a well-known group brought in to undermine our efforts,” Mr. Velasquez said. “We told them, ‘you're not going to get away with this crap.’ ”

FLOC officials have been trying for months to get Altria to embrace an employee grievance procedure.

“All we’re asking is for the tobacco workers to have the right to collectively talk for themselves,” Mr. Velasquez said. “It’s a very fundamental American principle, and one that we will continue to fight for.”

Reynolds Spokesman David Howard did not return phone calls seeking comment this week.

Reynolds and Philip Morris subcontract work to other companies. They say there is little they can do to address FLOC's concerns.

Mr. Velasquez wants tobacco companies get cooperation from subcontractors or begin writing new contracts in the future.

Farm workers have a right to join a union: It’s the law in North Carolina, Mr. Howard has said. But he also has acknowledged an employer doesn’t have to recognize the union.

Also at the convention, FLOC delegates also elected Justin Flores, a University of North Carolina law student, as vice-president.

Cristina Vasquez Wagner of Toledo was elected as the group’s secretary/​treasurer.

Elected to four-year term board seats were: Sesario Duran of Toledo, Angelita Morrisroe of North Carolina, Briana Kemp of North Carolina, and Mario Vargas of North Carolina.

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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