Giving Farmworkers a Seat at the Negotiating Table

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the second of three parts of an interview with Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In part two, Mr. Velasquez shares stories of FLOC’s success at the negotiating table.

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.

FLOC works tirelessly to create collective bargaining agreements between growers, food companies and farmworkers. (Photo credit: FLOC)

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 cucumber s, 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. And the compensatory education programs that would take kids over 6 years old. Now there was a 1-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%. 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.

Stay tuned for the final part of this interview, where Mr. Velasquez addresses how consumers can get involved to support farmworkers’ rights. For part one, see Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights for More Than 40 Years, and for more on the global labor force, see Depending on A Global Workforce.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Go to Source