In 1983, FLOC members marched from the tomato and
pickle fields in Ohio to Campbell Soup's headquarters in Camden NJ
to call for social justice and labor rights for Midwestern farmworkers.
Baldemar Velásquez, FLOC founder and President (second from the right), walks with Vice President Fernando Cuevas (on far right).
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The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) was founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velásquez, and in 1979 was formally organized as a labor union of farmworkers working in the Midwest. After unsuccessful attempts to establish a dialogue with Campbell Soup Company, FLOC workers voted in 1978 to strike all Campbell's tomato field operations in northwestern Ohio. When strikebreakers were brought in and the corporation mandated that its growers use mechanical harvesters, FLOC called upon public support in the form of a citizens' boycott of all Campbell Soup products. The rationale behind this strategy was that a boycott is one of the few nonviolent means available to offset the relative powerlessness of farmworkers. FLOC reasoned that the widespread socioeconomic power of the public at large can effectively counterbalance the economic and political power of large agribusinesses.
FLOC farmworkers vote in 1978 to strike Campbell's
tomato operations in Ohio.
One of the most important issues in the FLOC movement has been
the right for farmworkers to participate actively in those decisions that affect their conditions.
In the summer of 1979, FLOC held its first constitutional convention, in Holgate, Ohio. The convention was important because it demonstrated the substantial internal support for FLOC among farmworkers themselves. It also served as an occasion to mobilize external support. FLOC's legitimacy was recognized by the broad support of labor, church, politic-al, and civic organizations around the country who attended the convention as guest speakers and observers.
For eight years, FLOC farmworkers were on strike
against the tomato and pickle operations of Campbell Soup in Ohio and
In support of the farmworkers' cause, many religious groups, labor organizations, groups concerned with social justice,
local farmworker support committees, and Americans from all walks of life
boycotted Campbell's products to exert pressure on the company
to recognize its dominant role in migrants' conditions and powerlessness.
FLOC organized its efforts on two fronts. During the migrant season, FLOC concentrated on organizing farmworkers involved in Campbell's tomato operations, many of whom were brought in unknowingly to break the strike. FLOC also carried out organizing operations in the Texas and Florida base areas of farmworkers during the off-season. A second effort focussed on mobilizing popular support for its cause. Leaders in church, labor, and other organizations sympathetic to the farmworker rights were asked to endorse the boycott and inform its members of the issues. Local volunteer support committees were organized, who advocated the boycott with church, labor, educational, and other groups in their own areas. During the migrant season, many of these supporters raised funds and collected food and clothing for the strikers.
In 1983, a new issue was introduced into the FLOC struggle, when farmworkers in Michigan lost a case against "sharecropping" in the cucumber (or "pickle") industry. In this arrangement, the grower received half of the proceeds of the harvest, and the other half was divided among the field workers as "independent contractors" according to the quantity they picked. There were two main problems with this system. One was that the industry was not held responsible for child labor in the harvesting of his crop, since technically the children were not employees. The second problem was that the farmworkers had to pay a higher tax rate and file their own federal and state tax withholdings and Social Security payments. Also, many farmworkers were placed in a higher tax bracket, because the earnings of all the workers in the family were attributed to the head of the household alone. Most farmworkers did not understand the implications of this arrangement, and many were surprised to find they were audited by the Internal Revenue Service. One FLOC worker, for example, discovered he and his family owed over $7,000 in back taxes, plus penalties. This was more than the family's annual income, and they faced a lifetime of debt. FLOC subsequently began organizing pickle workers in Ohio and Michigan who were involved with the Campbell's Vlasic products.
In 1983, FLOC organized a 550-mile farmworkers' march from Toledo, Ohio, to Campbell Soup's home offices in Camden, New Jersey. Along the route, the marchers were met with a popular reaction of sympathy and support from farmers who put them up overnight in barns, local labor unions who brought the marchers shoes, churches who fed them, and local people who joined the march through their area. In Philadelphia, a large rally was held, then a mass was held in the Catholic cathedral in Camden. The next day completed their march with a demonstration at Campbell Soup headquarters and presented a workers' petition asking the company to respond to their needs by negotiating with their organization.
One of the most moving moments in FLOC's struggle
was during the 1983 march on Campbell Soup.
A mass for the farmworkers was held at the Camden Catholic cathedral,
where about fifteen priests washed the feet of the marchers.
The moral force of this event was a great encouragement to the farmworkers and to their supporters.
In 1984, FLOC also added another strategy to its efforts to bring Campbell Soup to negotiate, a "corporate campaign" to gain support for its cause among the company's stockholders and investors. FLOC supporters who had stocks in Campbell Soup raised the movement's issues at stockholders' meetings. The campaign also targeted the banks and corporations which held large blocks of Campbell's stocks and which were represented on the company's board of directors. FLOC asked its supporters to write letters to those corporations asking them to use their positions to help influence Campbell Soup to resolve the farm labor issues. This strategy not only broadened the economic arena of the movement, but also increased the social visibility of the issues.
In February 1986, after two years of on-and-off talks, FLOC, Campbell Soup, and Campbell's tomato growers in Ohio and its Vlasic pickle growers in Michigan signed a unique 3-year labor contract covering 800 farmworkers. The contracts set hourly wage rates for workers on harvesters and for truck drivers. Piece rates were also set for hand pickers, plus incentive payments for higher yields. In addition, the contracts established a paid holiday (Labor Day), and set up an experimental health insurance program. Full prior disclosure of conditions of employment (the time period, place, pay rates, and activities) was established. And at the end of the season, each worker was to be provided a full itemized written report of all earnings and expenses.
Of historic importance was two unique features in these agreements. One was a contractual agreement among the three major parties concerned: farmworkers, growers, and food processing corporations. This arrangement ensured that farmers as well as farmworkers had a voice in conditions that affect their well being, and also that the corporations could put forth the conditions that ensured its viability as a corporation of public shareholders. The second feature was the contractual establishment of the "Dunlop Commission," a private labor relations board composed of representatives of each of the three parties concerned. This commission is headed by John Dunlop, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, and was invested with the power to review, arbitrate, and, as necessary, resolve complaints brought before it. The Dunlop Commission provided for a way to resolve the complex situation of farmworkers working across various states with different laws and agricultural structures.
Fernando Cuevas, FLOC Vice President,
briefs farmworkers in an Ohio migrant camp about their rights and benefits
under the labor contract between FLOC, growers, and Heinz.
The labor contracts are historic in several ways.
They involve all three parties involved in farm labor in the region (food processing corporations, farmers, and migrant farmworkers).
They also provide a means for resolving conflicts through a grievance procedure
overseen by a contractual labor relations commission which extends across state boundaries.
FLOC had originally stated that their long-term goals included structural changes in the agribusiness system that affected farmworkers' lives. The contracts with Campbell Soup was only the start, and similar agreements with Vlasic, Heinz, Green Bay, and Aunt Jane corporation and their pickle growers in Ohio and Michigan were subsequently signed. In all, over 7,000 workers are now represented by FLOC under union contracts.
In subsequent years, all contracts were renewed. Perhaps one of the most important feature of these contracts was that they formally eliminated sharecropping arrangements. All workers were now clearly classified as paid employees with a minimum earnings guarantee. They also received incentives for quantity and quality of the cucumbers picked. In addition, they received workers compensation, unemployment insurance, and social security. Clauses were also included that provided field sanitation facilities and protections against pesticides. Furthermore, only workers 15 and older could be employed, thus contractually eliminating child labor. FLOC leaders express a great sense of achievement at these developments. "Elimination of the sharecropping system was won by farmworkers," Baldemar Velásquez says, "not by lawyers or politicians."
The contracts provided FLOC farmworkers with a whole set of new rights and benefits. They had won clear union recognition. Most important, farmworker participation in determining wages and benefits had been established. One important provision of the contracts was the establishment of a grievance procedure. When a problem was noted, attempts would be made to resolve it informally in the camps between the workers, the FLOC representative, and the grower. If the problems persisted, the grievance was to be presented in writing to a FLOC-grower panel within 48 hours. If it was still not resolved, the Dunlop Commission would arbitrate and make a ruling. All these provisions were binding by a legal contract. This has had a large and positive impact on FLOC farmworkers' sense of security. A number of FLOC workers have stated that they felt they were no subject to the threats or whims of others. To these farmworkers, the new rights and benefits were "like a law."
When the FLOC strike began in 1978, Midwestern farmworkers were experiencing among the most deprived socioeconomic conditions of any group in America. By the 1991 season, over 7,000 people were working under FLOC contracts. A number of specific achievements have been achieved by the FLOC movement.
Baldemar Velásquez and a farmworker delegate
discuss an organizational issue during the 1988 FLOC convention.
Farmworkers can now actively participate in affairs that affect their rights and well-being
through the structure provided by FLOC and the three-party contracts.
Perhaps the greatest of FLOC's accomplishments was that for the first time Midwestern farmworkers have a formal voice in their own conditions. The collective bargaining agreements have provided a new structure where farmworkers are an equal partner in deciding what benefits they will accept for their labor. This does not mean that they have total control, of course. But it does mean that they can decide what they will give up and what they will not give up. And they make these decisions, rather than someone else unilaterally deciding for them.
FLOC workers now enjoy considerably improved working conditions. They have won an increase of up to 25% in wages and incentive payments. Housing and sanitary facilities have been improved. In particular, labor contracts had eliminated sharecropping in the area, along with the child labor that accompanied it.
New migrant housing at a FLOC labor camp in Michigan.
FLOC, growers, and the food processing corporations involved in the three-party contracts
have cooperated in seeking public-private funding for migrant housing.
This is a concrete symbol of the new structure in the agricultural system
in which farmworkers are experiencing improved living and working conditions,
greater income, more occupational stability, and a greater sense of employment security.
One important change in many FLOC workers is a new sense of security. They know that they cannot be harassed or fired for protesting against unacceptable conditions or unfair treatment. They are conscious that their jobs will be waiting for them next year. They can rely on earning a basic income with which to support their families. This sense of psychological security is a pervasive impact of the FLOC movement.
There is also a remarkable degree of personal growth in those farmworkers who have become involved in the FLOC movement. They have become more interested in national and international affairs, have developed leadership and organizing skills, and have developed broader social relations with others.
The new developments being experienced by FLOC farmworkers have many important long-term implications. FLOC workers can now expect to lead healthier, more stable lives. They can look forward to a higher and more beneficial standard of living. And they can expect to achieve a more productive existence, with a greater sense of achievement in their individual and family lives. FLOC farmworkers are also more integrated into a new social structure of farmworkers. Through FLOC, they have more contact with other farmworkers, and can compare conditions, benefits, and ideas. A broader identity as FLOC workers is also taking shape.
A farmer addresses farmworker delegates at the
1991 FLOC convention.
Given the former bitter opposition of growers to the FLOC movement, this was a historic event.
FLOC, farmers, and the food processing corporations now cooperate in improving the conditions of farmworkers
and in resolving differences through the grievance procedure.
The structure of the agricultural system in the Midwest has been significantly changed by the FLOC movement
in ways that benefit farmworkers, farmers, agribusinesses, and, in the long run, all Americans.
Since 1986, there has also been a significant change in the agricultural system of which farmworkers are a part:
FLOC's relations with the food processing corporations and growers have been considerably altered. For example, FLOC, some growers, and Heinz and Vlasic have developed cooperative programs to improve housing, field sanitation, and other conditions for their workers. Growers have also realized benefits from the three-party contracts. They are guaranteed, for example, a more stable and experienced work force. This has resulted in an increase in pickle productivity by over 40%, according to Heinz figures. Another benefit is that the three-year term of the contracts has improved the growers' credit ratings for farm loans.
Another major change in the agricultural system is that there are now new processes for addressing problems among the three major parties involved. A process for dealing with day to day problems is the grievance procedure included in the contracts. The Dunlop commission provides a means for dealing with collective problems and conflicts. The commission functions as a private labor relations board, whose authority is guaranteed in legal contracts. It sidesteps lack of legislation and regulation, and legal differences across state boundaries. Baldemar Velásquez notes that this new system "is based on mutual dialogue and respect. It enforces the same rules for all parties." The grievance procedure and the Dunlop commission provide a structure for constructively resolving differences as they arise and before they get serious.
On a larger scale, FLOC farmworkers are now more integrated into the American socioeconomic system. They are more active participants in this system, along with the agribusinesses and growers. In many ways, the American socioeconomic system itself has also been changed. FLOC workers are now more integrated into the national structure through links with labor, religious, and other organizations. Their active involvement and their new networks bring FLOC farmworkers more into the national structure, from their former isolation on the fringes of society.
At a FLOC rally in Philadelphia in 1983, Baldemar
Velásquez called farmworker children up front.
He told the audience that one child could grow up to be a doctor and discover a cure for cancer,
another child could be a teacher and develop a love of learning in school children, and so on.
One tragedy of discrimination is that it denies people to fulfill their potentials.
Another tragedy is that it also denies those potentials for ALL of us...
so we may die of cancer, our children may not develop the love of learning...
and so we all pay the costs of discrimination.
FLOC workers can now also make more contributions to the American society. They can be productive taxpayers, instead of having to rely on tax-supported social services. Their children can receive more comprehensive education. And their greater purchasing power can help support the American economy. Most important, they can contribute their own potentials as more productive and responsible citizens. As the FLOC workers become more integrated into the American system, we can all benefit.
Baldemar Velásquez, President of FLOC,
addresses a rally in support of farmworkers in front of the statehouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, in June 1998.
FLOC is seeking to continue these achievements in the rights, justice, and self-determination for farmworkers and for all Americans in North Carolina.
For more information on the North Carolina campaign and the boycott of Mt.
Olive Pickles, go to
FLOC Campaign in North Carolina
For more information on the FLOC movement, see Barger and Reza, The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest, University of Texas Press, 1994.
Go to FLOC
© January 1 2000