Latino Workers Beat Soup King

FLOC’s 7-year Campbell’s boycott pays off

By Peter Shapiro –

“It’s a move toward self-determination, a chance for a group of poor people to have control over the conditions of their lives.” So said Victor Amram-Odriazola, organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), following FLOC’s historic three-way union contract with Campbell’s Soup and the tomato and cucumber farmers of Michigan and Ohio.

The contract, signed February 19, is the product of 20 years of organizing in the Midwest fields, capped by a nationwide seven-year boycott of Campbell’s and Libby’s products. It is the biggest breakthrough for the farm workers movement since the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) successful organizing drives in California in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

FLOCMidwest farm workers are heavily exploited migrant workers, overwhelmingly Mexicano and Latino, who travel each year from as far as Florida and Texas. There has never been a farm workers union in the Midwest, but now FLOC, led by its president, Baldemar Velasquez, has finally won the democratic right of formal union recognition.

Already the repercussions are being felt. Heinz Foods, named by FLOC as a future target, has announced that it is ready to negotiate, too.

The lives of the estimated 70,000 Midwest farm workers bear witness to the way capitalists profit from the oppression of Mexicano and Latino peoples

The growers house the farm workers in labor camps where whole families are crowded into one-room shacks without running water, and a single outhouse serves as many as 20 families.

Field work pays less than minimum wage and means constant exposure to deadly pesticides. The work is not covered by federal labor laws. Because they must constantly travel in search of jobs, Latino and Mexicano workers lack even the most minimal political rights. Organized labor has largely ignored them.

But farm workers across the country are organizing against conditions like these — the UFW in California and Texas, COTA (Farmworkers Organizing Committee) in New Jersey, the Arizona Farm Workers. All gain strength from FLOC’s victory. At some point the basis may exist for one nationwide farm workers union.

The terms of the FLOC contract are modest. Covering 600 workers for now, it grants $4.50 an hour, union representation and health benefits. Other issues like housing, child care and pesticide protection have yet to be worked out. But as FLOC staffer Maria Sanchez told Unity, it is significant that the growers have been forced “to realize .. . that the union is here and they have to live with it. ” Besides laying the groundwork for future economic gains, FLOC’s contract is a weapon in the hands of all and power.

FLOC was born in 1967, when Baldemar Velasquez began organizing farm workers for fair pay and better living and working conditions in the tomato fields around Lucas County, Ohio. By 1978, FLOC was strong enough to launch a strike which reduced the tomato crop by 30-40%.

But FLOC soon realized it needed a strategy tailored to conditions in Ohio and Michigan. Most of the growers there are small and medium-size farmers at the mercy of the big food processors like Campbell. By dictating what farmers are paid for their crops, the big processors control workers ’ wages as well.

To attack the problem at its source, FLOC launched the Campbell’s boycott in 1979, demanding a three- way agreement between the union, the growers and the processors. This strategy gave the growers a stake in a signed contract by insisting they get a fair price and a guarantee that Campbell would buy the crops from a fixed number of acres each year.

The boycott built steadily. Support committees were set up in several major cities. Parents and school children helped force Campbell’s Soup out of their school cafeterias. Hundreds of local labor unions and even some internationals gave support. In scores of plants and offices Campbell’s Soup and V-8 juice were banished till a settlement could be reached.

Critical support came from the Chicano community, where many people know firsthand what work in the fields is all about and see the farm workers movement as the embodiment of their struggle for equality. Catholic churches, Chicano student and community groups rallied behind FLOC.

Finally, when the National Council of Churches threatened on February 21 to join the boycott if negotiations remained stalled, Campbell caved in. The boycott has been suspended, but FLOC will renew it if Campbell fails to live up to the agreement.

Despite the magnitude of the victory, FLOC has taken little time to celebrate. They have too much to do to build for the future.

Since farm workers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, enforcement of the contract falls on the private body which oversaw the representation elections and contract talks. It is also charged with settling outstanding contract issues. Headed by former U.S. Labor Secretary John Dunlop, the body includes representatives of Campbell, the union and the growers. It remains to be seen how the Dunlop commission will carry out these tasks.

In the meantime, workers on seven pickle farms in northwest Ohio have voted for representation. FLOC must work to bring them under the new contract. Workers on 64 other farms have asked for representation elections. FLOC is focusing on approximately 1,000 workers in the immediate period to bring under the agreement.

The long-term impact on the Chicano and Latino movements will be far more profound. These movements have always been tied to the farm workers’ struggle, and that struggle has just taken a big step forward