Fighting for human rights in the fields of North Carolina

At its meeting in August, the AFL-CIO Committee on Civil and Human Rights was given a presentation from the committee’s chairperson, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, on her recent trip to meet with the immigrant farm workers in North Carolina. Sister Holt Baker had been invited to visit the workers by Baldemar Velasquez, the president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). I, along with the other members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, was invited by Brother Velasquez to travel to North Carolina to meet with the immigrant workers. I proudly accepted, and I made the trip late last month.

IFPTE and FLOC don’t have many opportunities to interact. However, I thought it was important for me to make the trip for two reasons.

First, we can learn much from this organization. Although FLOC is a small national union, through massive member mobilization and by following some rather ingenious strategies, the organization has shown to have more muscle than one might expect. By raising public awareness on its issues, FLOC has won some remarkable victories in the past few years.

Secondly, and more importantly, FLOC’s is a battle for basic human rights. Its struggle is not strictly about immigration. It’s about whether we, as unionists, as Americans, as fellow humans, will agree to the heartless treatment of others. It’s about whether we will stand by silently, while other people on American soil are forced to endure inhumane treatment by those who so callously wield power over them.

FLOC President Velasquez started my trip with an extensive briefing, during which he freely answered all of my questions.

Much of our discussion centered on his internal strategies, and for the sake of discretion, I won’t divulge any of that here.

To my question regarding the workers’ legal status as immigrants, Mr. Velasquez said that many of the workers we would meet are undocumented. Mr. Velasquez explained that it’s nearly impossible to gain legal entry into the United States as a farm worker. Those few who do get working visas are requested directly by a handful of growers who use legal channels to find labor. Often only a portion of the workers have visas and the rest are undocumented, to provide a semblance of legal hiring practice.

Why not enter legally?

When I asked why immigrants don’t try to enter the United States legally, Mr. Velasquez explained that such a thing is all but impossible. In order to gain a working visa or a “green card,” foreign workers need to have an employer-sponsor, and the majority of farm owners have no interest in sponsoring workers to whom they would be required to pay a higher minimum wage. Instead, the owners rely on a well-funded and well-organized recruitment/smuggling ring that operates by extracting a fee from each immigrant (money, which is acquired by a loan from the ring itself) and then, the workers are shipped to various parts of the country to work as fruit and vegetable pickers. Most of the workers who have a visa are organized and fall under an effective collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between FLOC and the North Carolina Growers Association. The workers with a visa who don’t fall under the CBA often have their passports seized by the employer and kept until the worker has fulfilled his/her obligation. In other words, the worker is prevented from quitting.

I asked why the undocumented workers don’t try to save enough money to go back home, and then, come back to the United States legally. Mr. Velasquez explained that in order to apply for a working visa, a prospective immigrant must declare whether he or she has ever entered the United States illegally or worked without authorization. U.S. Workers who enter illegally are barred from re-entry for at least 10 years. As to the prospect of saving any money earned, Mr. Velasquez told me the workers are paid such meager wages that saving even a portion of it was simply ridiculous.

When I asked whether the farm owners know that much of their workforce of farm laborers was undocumented, Mr. Velasquez laughed, as he assured me that of course they know. That’s the way the farm owners can get around any wage and hour laws, he explained. The farm owners depend on their workforce being undocumented, and the workers’ substandard pay, along with the absence of any benefits, is an essential element of the farm owner’s profits. Mr. Velasquez added, “Besides, a lot of people would object to paying double for a jar of pickles just to ensure the workers get paid the minimum wage.”

As a side note, Mr. Velasquez told me that FICA tax is withheld from the workers’ pay even if the workers are undocumented.  It’s a sad but running joke that the undocumented workers are supporting the Social Security benefits of American workers, while the undocumented workers have no chance of receiving any benefits themselves.

We discussed the value of the workers’ membership in FLOC. First and foremost, when a union has a roster of the workers, the union demands that the workers are paid minimum wage and receive fair treatment consistent with prevailing law. Union members have the right to file grievances against their employer. These grievances involve anything from mistreatment by supervisors, to housing conditions, and being shorted their rightful pay, which is especially troublesome when the workers are paid by the count of produce picked in lieu of being paid a set amount of money per hour.

Outside of the FLOC/NCGA CBA, there is no protection against employer retaliation for workers who are deemed troublesome because of their union activity. In fact, in most states there are no labor laws that govern farm workers’ rights. Therefore, the union has no regulatory body to which the union or the workers can file appeals or unfair labor practice charges.

Sent to their work camps

When the day is done, the workers are sent to their work camps (I can hardly believe I’m using such a despicable term), where they eat, sleep, bathe and live while they are employed on any given farm. Mr. Velasquez and I, along with some staff representatives of FLOC and some other worker advocates, visited a few of the work camps, which were nonunion. (We didn’t want to get in the workers’ way while they were picking produce, so we waited until they had finished their work for the day.)

We were lucky enough to be there when the temperature was only around 90 degrees. But this was eastern North Carolina, and the temperature regularly swelters in the 100s.

In short, each complex was filthy and disgusting. The grounds were a mixture of rutted and uneven rocks, stones and weeds. Gnats and flies were so thick, we had to walk with our mouths closed and all of us were continuously swatting and waving our hands in front of our faces-as though that would do any good. Of course, the ever-present haze of flying bugs was always denser nearer to where the workers had to cook and eat their meals. Whatever else the workers ate, I have no doubt they couldn’t help but consume some insects with their food.

The work camps are made of rows of shacks that encircle a stony yard. The shacks rest on concrete slabs. The crude buildings are made of bare wood with bare pipe in the few buildings that have running water (the kitchens, the laundry rooms and the bathrooms are all located in the same buildings). A lone 50-gallon water heater is used to accommodate up to 100 people, who all need to bathe, wash their clothes and eat in the same complex. When the hot water runs out, the workers simply have to shower and do their laundry in cold water. There is no running water in any of the shacks used for sleeping.

We arrived in time to find most of the workers had just washed after the day’s work. They were all incredibly friendly and in good spirits, although none of them could hide the fact that they were dog tired. At this point in their day, the simple act of sitting down was a joyous experience.

The workers all knew who Baldemar Velasquez was. If they didn’t know him, they’d all obviously heard of him and they accepted him like he was a saint.

I refrained from waving the haze of bugs away from my face while I was talking with the workers, because I didn’t want to appear perturbed by such a minor inconvenience in the face of such appalling hardship. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of how my own family reacts when there’s a single fly or a moth in the house.

The workers all welcomed us and freely spoke with us. We were careful not to take too many pictures of them without their approval and we were told beforehand (by the FLOC staffers) not to take photographs of any of the children.

I sat and spoke with a worker named C for a few minutes. Like all the other workers around him, C is a slightly built man. He is small and wiry, without an ounce of fat on him. As I sat down, C glanced at the FLOC staffers and I assume they nodded that it was safe to talk with me. (The FLOC staffers served as our interpreters.) C said he was doing fine, except that he was incredibly tired.

Photo: Baldemar Velasquez, left and Gregory Junemann, right. Courtesy of AFL-CIO.