On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” Baldemar Velasquez, founder and President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) shares how he defied expectations when he set out to unionize migrant farm workers. “Everybody said it was impossible to unionize migrants. They’re here, but they’ll be gone tomorrow,” says Velasquez. “So we built on the close networks we enjoyed as families,” explains Velasquez.
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Since its founding in 1967, FLOC relies on these networks, maintained especially by women such as Velasquez’s mother. “When the union got started and the women got involved: man, they brought an army of very active families that solidified the core of people that any movement needs,” says Velasquez.
“There’s no end to the organizing that needs to be done among agricultural workers,” says Velasquez. As a part of a migrant farm worker family himself, farming from Texas to Ohio, Velasquez is determined to give migrant farm workers a voice. “Farm workers don’t have political leverage because we migrate, because we’re not permanent; we have very little leverage other than the moral outrage that can be provoked through the stories and tragedies we have to suffer.“
On farms, migrant farm workers face harsh and humiliating conditions. “We’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning to be in the fields by 6:00 AM,” explains Velasquez, “but when I was growing up, there were no toilet facilities in the fields […] you felt embarrassed and humiliated watching your mom trying to find a place to go to the bathroom.” For Velasquez, even in tough conditions, food provided comfort. “Food in the fields was the most comforting and enjoyable time because you got a break from the stoop labor. Those break times were probably the most refreshing and uplifting times of the day,” explains Velasquez.
FLOC aims to change these conditions. With national boycotts, the organization pressures companies such as Campbell’s Soup in landmark cases. “Boycotts always work,” says Velasquez. The organization led a 965-kilometer (600-mile) march to Campbell’s headquarters in 1983, resulting in the first tri–party contract ever in agriculture. This drew the attention of Cesar Chavez, a labor activist and Velasquez’s role model. “From that time, he’d become a very ardent supporter of what we were doing in Ohio, Michigan, and other places that we were organizing. Cesar came and marched with us the last two days,” says Velasquez.
While the work is challenging and disparaging, Velasquez reminds activists to work with growers and company executives for real change in a food system that neglects migrant farm workers. “I always try to teach activists not to demonize the opposition. They’re human beings, they are as much trapped in a system as we are,” says Velasquez.
Photo courtesy of FLOC.