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Farm Laborers Win Contract

Farm Laborers Win Contract image Farm Laborers Win Contract image
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On February 19, 1986, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, representing farmworkers in Ohio and Michigan, signed precedentsetting contracts with Campbell's Soup Company against whom they had been striking since 1978, and against whom they had lead a nation-wide consumer boycott since 1979. This represents the first time in labor history that a contract has been negotiated in three-way bargaining involving farmworkers, farmers and processors. The contracts, covering 159 Ohio tomato workers and 400 Michigan cucumber workers, are written through the 1988 and 1989 seasons for tomatoes and cucumbers respectively. The contracts specify, among other conditions, union recognition, wage increases to $4.50 per hour, major medical and hospitahzation insurance, a 48 hour grievance resolution, paid unión representatives, and one paid holiday (Labor Day). In addition, the agreement calis for up to $2000.00 per family in compensation for the original strikers of 1978. The agreement also formally establishes committees to change or improve pesticide programs, housing, healthcare and safety, day care, and to work on altematives to the sharecroppingindepedent contractor system. Campbell's will build a multi-million dollar facility at its Napolean, Ohio canned soup plant in order to keep acreage and employment at the 1985 levéis. Finally, the Dunlop Commission (established in Spring 1985 to facilítate FLOC-Campbell discussions) will oversee the incorporation of additional growers into the bargaining process. The Dunlop Commission is headed by John Dunlop, Harvard professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor. Also on the Commission are UAW president Douglas Fraser, Msgr. George Higgins of the UAW's Public Review Board and labor expert from the Catholic University of America, and Don Paarlberg, professor emeritus at Purdue University. Tremendous as this agreement is, it is important to remember that it is merely a beginning. Sixty thousand farmworkers throughout (continued on page ) F.L.O.C. Victory (continued from page 19) is, it is important to remember that it is merely a beginning. Sixty thousand farmworkers throughout the midwest have yet to be organized. Furthermore, we must also remember that this battle was won as a result of broad-based support from hundreds of religious, labor, and community organizations and thousands of supporting individuals.In fact, the February 19 contract signing came only three days before the National Council of Churches of Christ, (NCC) -representing 40 million people in 31 christian was to formally endorse the boycott. It is only with this type of continued support that farmworkers can now begin to rise from a long history of subminimum wages, substandard housing, and unsafe working conditions. Still today, life expectancy for farmworkers is 49 years while the infant mortality rate is 25% higher than the national average and the incidence of influenza and pneumonia is 20% higher than the national average. FLOC History FLOC was founded in Putnam County, Ohio by Baldemar Velasquez. Velasquez was born in Pharr, Texas and raised in a family of farmworkers. Most working class people of the United States aspire to créate a better life for their children, to send them to college perhaps. Few are truly successful. For farmworkers, the odds against such success are even greater. Only 11% of them ever gradúate from high school. Velasquez, an encouraging exception, successfully completed a college curiculum. However, having become politicized as a college student, he opted to use his educational career to go beyond just making life comfortable for his family. He took on the task and responsibility of raising the public's awareness of his people's suffering and began the fight for nationwide recognition of the reality of this underclass existence, and to make society accountable - to effect real lasting change. Velasquez began organizing on a community level in local churches, not always with the support of the local church hierarchy but with the stalwart support of fellow farmworkers and community members. From 1968 to 1970 FLOC organized strikes against several northwest Ohio farmers, winning 34 separate contracts for wage increases. They soon realized that the contracts won represented relatively insubstancial gains, a realization representing a turning point in FLOC's understanding of the true source of political power structuring the farm system in the midwest. The political power did not rest in the hands of the many small-scale farmers who, almost by definition, are independent and unorganized. Winning contracts against this sea of unorganized individual farmers could not lead to any significant and lasting structural changes in the system that had entrapped the farmworkers into the position of slavelabor, a position in which, with few exceptions, farmworkers remain today. The structure of the agricultural industry in the midwest is dictated by the structure of the controlling food processing industries.This control begins, for example, with Campbell's contracts with a number of tomato farmers in northwest Ohio. Not only does the processor determine the quantity and type of tomatoes planted, but the schedules for planting, pest control, and harvest as well. Necessarily, this determines what the farmer can afford to pay the farmworkers. In f act, the processors eam 83% of the retail price of the tomatoes while the remaining 17% is distributed among the farmers, cannery workers and farmworkers. In 1971, FLOC shifted its focus to the real culprit, the processors. FLOC spent the next few years strengthening the organization. FLOC directed organizing campaigns toward the "settled-out" farmworkers (permanent area residents), and established food and gasoline cooperatives and a legal clinic. In 1978, FLOC called a strike against all farms contracting tomatoes to Campbell's or the Libby-McNeil-Libby Co.(later dropped from the strike after selling its Leipsic, Ohio cannery). Over 2,000 farmworkers walked out on strike demanding union recognition and the establishment of the three-way negotiations for better wages and working conditions. The following year FLOC announced the nationwide consumer boycott of all Campbell's (and Libby's) products. The struggle that ensued from the initiation of the strike to the signing of the contract faced strong and cruel opposition. Over the past 9 years, FLOC members have been intentionally sprayed with pesticides, union flags have been burned on the picket Unes, Ku Klux Klan-style crosses have been burned, and strikers have been evicted from their camps. In September 1979, FLOC's attorney, Jim Kilroy was brutally beaten by the Putnam County sheriff and deputies when he arrived at the jailhouse to advise arrested farmworkers. Kilroy received a fractured skull and damage to several optie nerves permanently preventing his return to a full-time career. Kilroy was awarded $180,000 four and a half years later in an out-of-court settlement. And yet, despite all odds, FLOC is victorious. The fight continúes forward. Future Direction and Perspective Fortunately, FLOC can learn from the misfortune of its sister organization, the United Farmworkers (UFW), in organizing grape and lettuce farmworkers in California. In the early 1970's, the UFW won substantial contracts in grape production following the 5 year nationwide consumer boycott. Although the UFW has maintained a strong organization since that time, they are now in a position much like that before the previous boycott was initiated. Less than 3% of grape pickers are now unionized as a result of well organized and politically powerful grape growers associations who have successfully eliminated nearly all enforcement of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, protecting farmworker's right to organize. FLOC should take this as a waming of what may well happen once the public begins to feel that the farmworkers have gained what they wanted and no longer "need" our support. This attitude could be no further from the truth as the UFW tragedy clearly indicates. FLOC should act accordingly and is at present, planning large-scale organizing campaigns for this coming growing season. From its inception, FLOC's leaders have recognized the need to develop and maintain a widespread base of support throughout the country. Within the last couple of years, this perspective has developed into one of global scale. Velasquez often describes FLOC's struggle not as isolated, but rather as one part of the global struggle for peace and justice for all oppressed people. He emphasizes the importance of supporting common struggles, a philosophy clearly adhered to by the organization. FLOC maintains close ties with the UFW and regular correspondance with labor organizations around the world including participation in conferences of the World Federation of Trade Unions. FLOC has recently established a mutual support system with the farmworker union in Nicaragua (ATC). I too feel firmly committed to the worldwide struggle for peace and justice and am in total solidarity with the people of Latin America and their fight for selfdetermination and peace. However, I believe that a committment to peace and social change should begin here with support for our oppressed brothers and sisters at home. Let us keep in mind always, that the struggles are one, and not abandon one part, perhaps a less "popular" one, for another. Let's help the UFW gain back what they fought for so long and hard. Help FLOC maintain recent gains and respect they have so long deserved. What You Can Do To Help FLOC's need for fïnancial support is ever increasing as it continúes to organize and sign authorization cards (3,000 farmworkers signed cards last summer). Recently, in anticipation of the contract signing, FLOC began efforts to win contracts with six other food processors. Heinz has already indicated willingness to talk with FLOC and work toward an industry-wide agreement Write a friendly letter to the president of Heinz expressing your support of FLOC, and the importance of a contract. Encourage him to negotiate with FLOC. Anthony J.F. O'Reilly H J. Heinz Co. 600 Grant Street, 60th floor Pittsburgh, PA 15219 Lastly, if you are planning to be in Ann Arbor during the Summer Art Fair, come help Ann Arbor FLOC (the local support group of 7 years) make and sell burritos and tacos. It's great fun and we can use all the help we can get! Toledo FLOC (headquarters), has come to look forward to the $4,000.00 we are able to raise in these four days. The Ann Arbor FLOC support group meets every week in 4318 Michigan Union, 538 S. State Street, on the University of Michigan campus. All are welcome. For more in for mat ion cali 764-1446.