FLOC: Winning Collective Bargaining for Farmworkers

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has deep roots organizing farmworkers from the midwest to Mexico to North Carolina.  FLOC was founded in the mid-1960's by Baldemar Velásquez, a tomato farmworker in Northwest Ohio, who started out by convincing a small group of migrant farmworkers to come together for their collective good.  Over the course of several years, FLOC eventually built a strong base among farmworkers in the area, and today FLOC has thousands of members in the midwest and North Carolina.

“Farmworkers are among the most exploited workers in the U.S.,” says Justin Flores, Organizer at FLOC.  “They are excluded from regular labor laws, and traditional organized labor has thought it was not possible to organize migrant farmworkers.  So objectively speaking, farmworkers continue to face some of the most dangerous conditions of all workers in the U.S. – decrepit housing, exposure to pesticides, extreme heat, 14 hour days in the sun, limited water and breaks.”

FLOC's success has come from tireless organizing, ambitious vision, and strategic campaigns.  Their approach is a mix of traditional union organizing together with community organizing.  And they organize across racial lines to counter wedges and achieve racial justice in the fight for economic justice.  They've had significant success achieving black and brown unity by building consciousness that before it was Latinos in the fields, it was black and poor white workers in the fields facing the same conditions.   

Because there are few labor laws, and therefore government handles, to protect farmworkers, early on they identified the strategy of going after corporate targets -- the large purchasers who relied on the produce harvested by the farmworkers to make their products.  For example, in 1986, after 8 years of organizing, FLOC targeted and won a historic 3-way collective bargaining agreement between Campbells Soup and the regional growers' industry. They then went on to win collective bargaining agreements with Vlasic, Heinz, Green Bay, and Aunt Jane corporation and their pickle growers in Ohio and Michigan.  By then they had organized most farms in northwest Ohio all the way into Michigan and represented about 7,000 farmworkers.  

FLOC expanded its work to North Carolina in the late 90's, when a pickle company called Mt. Olive began to undercut their wins in the midwest.  FLOC organized a 5-year boycott and won a collective bargaining agreement with both Mt. Olive and the North Carolina growers association in 2004.  The organizers in North Carolina have been been administering this contract since 2005.  

This win was historic because it was the first ever collective bargaining agreement for agriculture workers in the South, and the first in the history of the H2A program (a program which provides “guest worker” visas to primarily Meixcan migrants to come work at harvest times – agriculture in North Carolina is heavily dependent on H2A workers these days) .  

“FLOC was going after cucumber growers but we got more than we bargained for,” said Justin.   “We also got workers harvesting tobacco, sweet potato and over 30 other crops covered  because of the agreement with the NC growers association.  But this was only a foot in the door to organize southern agriculture.  There are at least 100,000 farmworkers in NC, and this contract covers about 6,000-8,000 working at 600 farms across the state.

So FLOC decided to go against the cash crop of the South – Tobacco.  And in choosing their target they knew they had to pick a big and recognizable company –  Reynolds American – a company with a long history of using racism and red-baiting to destroy union efforts, the 2nd biggest tobacco company in the country and the largest non-unionized tobacco company in the states.  

FLOC launched their campaign against Reynolds in September 2007.  They started with call in and letter writing campaigns, but were first ignored then attacked as a money hungry union.  They have consistently been at their shareholder meetings both on the inside and the outside, and have pressured other tobacco companies to talk to FLOC in order to isolate Reynolds.  FLOC has also targeted Chase, Reynolds’ biggest lender, to demand that they cut off their credit line to them.  Chase went as far as contacting Reynolds to ask them to speak with FLOC, but they continue to finance farmworker exploitation.

Meanwhile Reynolds wrote an open letter denying that there were any problems whatsoever in their supply chain.  But then this year, FLOC teamed up with Oxfam America to do a human rights assessment on tobacco, and released a preliminary report at the most recent shareholder meeting on May 6.  Now Reynolds says they are taking exploitation in their supply chain seriously, and will look into the matter.  This was a breakthrough in the campaign.   

“There's an estimated 20 or 30,000 workers harvesting tobacco in the state,” says Justin.  “This campaign has the potential of going beyond tobacco to affect sweet potato and blueberry farmworkers for example, it has to potential to change all of southern agriculture.”

What will they do when they pressure Reynolds into sitting down to talk with FLOC?

“The first thing we want them to recognize is that FLOC represents a significant part of their supply chain, and we need to be in discussion.  We're a labor union and the only ones on the ground representing farmworkers.  We want them to ensure that workers in their supply chain have the right to organize to collectively address problems.  We want them to acknowledge that Reynolds can give incentives to growers that are doing the right thing by creating better pricing or formulas for pricing,” says Justin.

When GGJ members come to North Carolina for the Congress, the campaign will continue to be in full swing.   Check out the FLOC website, sign up for their newsletter, and stay tuned for more information about a possible opportunity to visit some of FLOC's workcamps before the Congress officially begins.

by Jen Soriano