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Resource: Empowering Eaters Summit: “A Farmworkers Perspective” with Baldemar Velasquez, Farm Labor Organizing Committee

Keynote Fireside Chat: “A Farmworkers Perspective.” Baldemar Velasquez, International President, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, FLOC – AFL-CIO. Moderated by Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank. This talk happened at the Empowering Eaters: Access, Affordability, Healthy Choices, and Food is Medicine Summit in Support of a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health “The Health and Wellbeing of Future Generations in Policy.” Co-hosted by Duke University and Food Tank, and held on March 3, 2024.

Transcript

Danielle Nierenberg

Round of applause for Baldemar Velasquez, please. It’s so great to have this man here, I’ve talked to him many times and I know I keep calling everyone my hero, but that’s why we put these summits together so that I can see all of my favorite people in Baldemar is one of them. So I am so glad to see you, friend. I’m wondering if you can talk about the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. It’s one of the oldest organizations representing and advocating for farm workers here in the United States. What is it and what are your biggest challenges?

Baldemar Velasquez

Our biggest challenges has always been from the inception of FLOC, how do we create a sustainable production in labor-intensive crops? That’s as a difficult riddle at first, but we pioneered a breakthrough agreement in 1986 with the Campbell Soup company after a eight-year strike of over 2000 of us that walked out of the tomato fields and a seven-year boycott. When we finally came to terms with the company, we negotiated a price increase for the farmers that were our employers to be able to double our wages.

At that time, we were getting paid 16 cents a bucket for a 33 pound basket of tomatoes, and the growers were getting paid $34 a ton. So that 16 cents multiplied by 62,000 pounds in a ton, that’s $9, a little under $10 of that $34 per ton that the farmers got paid. And the average contract with a Campbell’s tomato grower at that time was 40 acres, when you multiply his profit margin per acre in order for him to break even when you took consideration of fertilizers and diesel and all the other things to get that tomato plant into the ground, transplants, planting, cultivating, hoeing, his break-even point, he had to yield 16 tons an acre. The average yield in 1983, 3 years before 1986 was 18 tons. So he was making $68 profit per those 40 acres. So when you deduct that $9.60 cents of our 16 cents, it left him with just that balance. He was making a profit margin of $68 per acre, multiply that by 40, that was his profit margin, some $3,000 and some change. And I said, if we ask for a 2 cent increase in picking tomatoes, you’re going to dig into that profit margin, he’s going to go out of business. So we had to have the company increase the price of tomatoes to facilitate wage increases for the workers.

We duplicated that model with Vlasic Pickle, Heinz USA, Dean Foods, and Jane Green Bay, and in the early 2000s, the Mt. Olive Pickle Company here in North Carolina that broke open the labor agreement that we have here in the state covering now around 9,000 H-2A guest workers from the mountains to the coast. And so that supply chain agreement is our biggest challenge and there’s not a conflict, but what I liked about some of the other presentations we had here today was getting people to think out of our silos. I like that because if we don’t think what our place is in the global view of where we are in the food production system, we’re going to die and we’re just going to continue to demonize one another and not reconcile and have a sustainable food production system.

Danielle Nierenberg

Absolutely. And on that point, one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about you and FLOC in general is that you’re making a point to distinguish between large farms, corporate farms and small farms, but you don’t pit them against each other. And I’m wondering how that philosophy came about and why you do that.

Baldemar Velasquez

Well, I think that when we talk about the food production system, we have to think about what our role is in the global issue around the commodities that we produce, and it really boils down to a farmer who invests his land in planning, cultivating and harvesting a crop that is supplied to major manufacturers and retailers as opposed to the corporate farms who pretty much control their own markets and market directly to food chain stores and other things. Small family farmers that are suppliers to these manufacturers and retailers are at a disadvantage because they have no way to negotiate the commodity prices, they just have to take what’s imposed on them, and they have to take from that to cover our expenses. And if we really want to see improvements in agricultural workers’, farm workers’ lives, we have to think about our role in that entire supply chain and what we have to do to affect that change in order to make it sustainable for everybody.

Danielle Nierenberg

Right, big and small and everyone in between. One of the things that I think people have a misconception about farm workers is that these are people who don’t have skills, but whenever I’ve been to a farm and watched farm workers work, it’s very arduous labor, they have to be very knowledgeable about what they’re doing, especially things like cucumbers. Can you talk about the skills that farm workers have and why it’s so important to US agriculture?

Baldemar Velasquez

When we signed our first agreements with these big cucumber manufacturers that processed in the pickles, The Vlasic Pickle Company, Heinz USA, the Mt. Olive Pickle company, we had to figure out what was the need of everybody in the system. The manufacturers in Ohio and Michigan wanted the number ones, the gherkin that fits hold into a jar. Mt. Olive Pickle company wanted 2As and 2Bs, that’s the larger ones that you make in the slices for sandwiches and so on. That’s their need. How do we as workers then harvest more of those sizes than any other size? Because a cucumber can grow one size overnight on a hot humid night. So in Ohio, we had to train our workers to how many rows they could pick each day, divide it into five days and allow two days to allow the cucumbers to grow. So we go the first day, clean the entire vine, so the flower would come up. Five, six humid nights, that flower is number one. So when we come back to harvest those first rows, the majority of the cucumbers are going to be number ones.

So we had a pick in rotation like that. We increased the size of number ones the second year from 18% per hundred weight of number ones to 34% the second year. The manufacturers got more of what they wanted, and at that time the workers were categorized as independent contractors, we had a plan to convert them to employees so they get their social security workers’ comp and unemployment covered, but it took the increase in what the manufacturer wanted more so they could afford to pay more for our work. And so we increased that for the farmers and the workers and were able to transition everybody to employee status with the extra income that the companies paid for more of what they wanted.

Danielle Nierenberg

Right. More knowledge, more expertise.

Baldemar Velasquez

And that took some skill, let me tell you.

Danielle Nierenberg

I can’t even imagine. A lot of math went on that I could not comprehend.

Baldemar Velasquez

I mean, when you really get down to it, it’s all in the numbers. You got a farmer… I mean, my personal feeling is that we have to have a policy in America where if you’re going to impose in the H-2A program, they got the so-called prevailing wage, which is known as the adverse effect wage rate, it increases every year. It’s 15.81 for North Carolina this year. It’s almost a dollar increase from last year and some of those farms that are marginal, it’s tough for them to absorb that. So we have to figure out a way to tie the commodity prices those farmers paid to those policy things coming out of Washington. If Congress can set prevailing wages for workers and set minimum wages for American workers, why can’t they set minimum commodity prices for farmers?

Danielle Nierenberg

Thank you, thank you. I mean, I think that’s another thing that you’ve been so good at doing is you’ve encouraged farm workers, small farm workers to organize together with small farms so that you can achieve that kind of goal. That has not always been easy though.

Baldemar Velasquez

No, it hasn’t because over the years there’s been a narrative of farm workers against farmers and farmers against farm workers, and it’s a false division because it’s kind of like Abraham Lincoln who once quoted from Matthew 12 that a house divided cannot stand. We have to unite the house, we have to unite everybody in the supply chain and small family farmers with labor-intensive crops and farm workers belong in the same. We are subjected to those commodity prices that are imposed upon us. So we had an event October 1st of this last year, and we brought together the North Carolina Grower Association, the Dunlop Commission, Farm Aid, Latino Farmers and Ranchers International and call for an alliance of small family farmers and farm workers so we can address some of these supply chain issues and talk about pushing for sustainable policies for all the parties involved in agricultural production.

Danielle Nierenberg

It’s real silo breaking that’s happening.

Baldemar Velasquez

It’s a challenge because we’re still buried in old thinking. Back in the sixties during the Civil Rights movement, Lyndon Johnson and King Jr. had this debate about how to empower the poor, and Dr. King wanted voting rights, Lyndon Johnson wanted the anti-poverty program, the Office of Economic Opportunity. Farm workers were showered with all these monies for food stamps and all of this. There’s some good things that came out of that war on poverty, the Head Start program, for instance, the food stamp program and those kinds of things. But when you talk about farm workers, we’re not talking about disabled or poor, unfortunate people that are under-employed, we’re talking about hard-working people that work in very arduous conditions, climate and everything. When they work that hard, it sort of begs the question, why can’t they feed, educate and clothe their families and be rewarded for the work that they do and use that as a proper income? We deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day of work, not charity, but we’ve been mired in that thinking since then and we have to break out of it. We supported that because we felt workers needed a way to transition out of poverty, but you can’t do that until you correct the math in the food supply system so that the people on the bottom of the supply chain can create a sustainable life.

Danielle Nierenberg

Thank you, Baldemar. Yes, please. I wonder, Baldemar, what is sort of on your wish list of policy changes that need to happen both at the federal level and at different state levels?

Baldemar Velasquez

One of the things that’s kept farmers and farm workers down is lack of ability to negotiate their work, for their work. This is kind of a crazy idea, but farmers need to have unions too, small family farmers to negotiate with manufacturers and retailers. Farm workers need right to form unions. And since 1935, the agricultural workers have been excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. You remember before 1935, we had child labor, exploited labor in the mines, in the textile mills all over the country. When they got the right to organize unions, they negotiated those things out of existence. And so why can’t we say the same thing for agricultural worker? We’ve been excluded from the National Labor Relations Act since 1935 and every reform since then and including today, the agreements that we won, we’ve done it by creating alternative independent mechanisms.

And we pioneered what we call the Dunlop Commission and it’s the first agreement that I negotiated with Campbell Soup back in 85 that really the framework was rules and regulations for representation procedures, authority to issue fine penalties and make-over remedies if you violated the rules for collective bargaining. And it was an independent commission signed by the Campbell Soup Company. So every company that we challenged from that point on, we got them to recognize that commission first before we negotiated a labor union. But it allowed the farmers to participate in those negotiations. And the one we won here in North Carolina was with the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, and they’re the ones that brokered the agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association by increasing the price of cucumbers to modify the prices that we had to get them covered under a collective bargaining agreement. But we have a voice then and the farmers have a voice, and I think that that’s the most important thing. But when we’re voiceless, we’re at the mercy of those who want to give us charity.

Danielle Nierenberg

Thank you, Baldemar. That voice is so important, and I think part of what makes your work so powerful, just knowing you personally, is that faith is very important to you. And the faith-based community and the farm worker movement have been very closely intertwined. And I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that.

Baldemar Velasquez

Well, if we don’t reconcile the old narratives historically that pits us against each other, we’re going to end up stagnant and staying where we are and at the mercy of everything around us. But together, I think we can challenge some very important things that need to be addressed. One is the fact to recognize that we’re part of a global economy and we have global competition.

Let me give you an example. In tobacco, everybody knows tobacco in North Carolina, tobacco is being challenged greatly because there’s only like six or seven buyers of all the tobacco in the world, and one of them is Alliance One over here in Greensboro, they buy all the tobacco for Philip Morris International, and they buy tobacco all over the world. They compete with North Carolina. We visited our counterpart tobacco workers in Malawi, where Alliance One has a big investment. We asked the guys at the flu cured tobacco operation, how much they got paid, when you translated their currency in the dollars, you guys are getting paid 85 cents a day. Now how are you going to compete with that? We’re not going to compete with that. The farmers are not going to compete with that.

So we have to have a global approach to this with our foreign policy and with our trade agreements that we have. Our trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, we now import more food from Mexico than we export. That’s turned around in the last decade because the trade agreement that we have in Mexico allows corporate farms to set up operations in Mexico with no tariffs or anything on those products coming in, it’s like growing it in the United States, much cheaper in Mexico. How are farmers in North Carolina going to compete with that, that sell their strawberries to Walmart, for instance, or sell their tobacco to Reynolds America? We’re not going to compete. We have to a global approach to that.

I don’t think the farm workers can do it by ourselves, I don’t think the farmers can do it by themselves. But if we did it together and join hands and find allied partners in the sympathetic progressive communities around the country, we can make it happen. Nobody thought in the ’80s that a ragtag group of tomato pickers could compel the Campbell Soup Company to sit down and negotiate with us as equals, that happened because there was enough people who cared in America. And I think I have a faith in you and all of those of you who care about the food systems in our world and in our country that the support will be there to make these impossible things possible.

Danielle Nierenberg

Woo. One final question, Baldemar, what is your biggest goal for FLOC this year, remembering it’s an election year?

Baldemar Velasquez

Our biggest goal right now is to submit a complaint under the USMCA challenging the US under the trade agreement, article 21 requires each country to have robust mechanisms on freedom of association. I know this pertains right now to the H-2A workers, the guest workers that come in from Mexico, but have ramifications for the rest of the agriculture production in the United States. Because if agriculture workers that are H-2A have collective bargaining rights, that opens the question for the rest of the one and a half million farm workers in the United States and their farmers who employ them. And I think that if we can get that complaint filed this year, that’s one of our goals.

The other goal is to do something about these independent farm labor contractors. They’re the worst abusers of this program. It’s not the farmers, it’s these independent contractors. Every horror story that you hear, including the Operation Blooming Onion that the Department of Labor filed in Georgia, those are all independent farm labor contractors. Those weren’t family farmers, but the farmers got blamed for that because that’s the prevailing discussion. And you have to really understand those dynamics. And we need to have our Congress change the definition of what is an employer that allows them to recruit H-2A workers in Mexico, and we need to get the Mexican side Congress to issue registration of these contractors and maybe make them issue a high bond if they violate these things. And I think that those are some of the immediate goals that we got planned right now, because we got to stop the abuse on both sides of the border of this program.