By Ronit Ridberg
This is the first of three parts of an interview with Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In Part One, Mr. Velasquez describes the biggest challenges and abuses farm workers face in the U.S., and what it was like for his family to work in America's agricultural sector. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.
Name: Baldemar Velasquez
Affiliation: President and Founder, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, FLOC, AFL-CIO
Location: Toledo, Ohio
Bio: Incensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farm workers, Baldemar Velasquez founded the union of migrant farm workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. FLOC works tirelessly to give voice to migrant farm workers across the country and include them in decision-making processes on conditions that affect their lives. Mr. Velasquez is a highly respected national and international leader, not only in the farm labor movement, but also in the Latino and immigrant rights movements.
What is your background, and how did you come to found FLOC?
My family was recruited into the migrant worker stream back in the early 50s from South Texas to harvest tomatoes, sugar beets and other hand-harvest crops in Ohio, Michigan and the Midwest. That began my long odyssey to this work, getting stranded in Ohio and not making enough money to get back to Texas. In those early years we didn't even have our own transportation and we got so in debt one fall, we had to stay the winter and borrow more money from the local farmers just to stay alive. Then we worked off the winter debt the next summer- working for free in the fields. We then stayed another winter and were in debt again, we sort of became like indentured workers for about seven years.
Just to get out of debt we traveled the summers around the mid-west to find the back-to-back-to-back crops. In Michigan with the cherries and the strawberries, and trimming Christmas trees then back to Ohio for the sugar beets and the tomato and cucumber harvest, right into the fall and picking potatoes for the local farmers. So that's how we just tried to keep out of debt and try and survive the winter so we could survive the following summer.
The silver lining in all of this was that I was able to learn English and stay in school - it was cold at home and warm in the schoolhouse so I kept going back to school. I ended up going to college - almost by accident! I didn't think that college was for Mexican kids, I thought it was for white kids, and my senior literature teacher said, "Why not?" My grades were good enough. During college vacations I would go back to the fields to work and by my senior year I was already organizing my dad and his friends, and my mom and her comadres in the fields.
Can you describe some of the biggest challenges and most common abuses faced by farm workers in the United States?
Well there's the outward abuses, like stealing your wages, getting cheated in your pay, employers cooking the books and falsely reporting the wages of workers. And a lot of times they hide it - like in our family, our whole family worked together but only my dad and my mom would get a paycheck. So they reported it as individual earnings, but it was really the collective earnings of all of us who worked on piece-rate crops. We were regularly cheated out of minimum wages. And as long as people were working piece-rates, getting paid by the bucket, by the acre, by the lug, by the crate, by whatever container or unit we were working and getting paid for, the record keeping of hours was very sporadic and very distorted.
Then there's the disregard for the health environment of the workers, the labor camps where many times the legislation was so lax that you could house people in chicken coops and barns, and still qualify to have registered labor camps. And even then, whatever laws were in the books were never enforced anyway. So we grew up in very bad labor camp conditions. So there's that environmental factor.
And then the human abuse, the tongue lashings that workers would get, that women would get from unscrupulous labor contractors, crew leaders, field men, and even some farmers. One of the things that would really shock me and anger me was the way they would talk to my mom, in ear shot of my little sisters who were all smaller. Well, it makes a young man very angry, and you want to do something but you don't know what to do.
So those are the kinds of abuses that we grew up with. By the time I was old enough to think about this seriously, I thought well, when I grow up, if I can do something about this, I'm going to do something!