home ||| current issue ||| past stories
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites

Using Plowshares As Swords

Farmers Trying to Cultivate Respect

by Matthew S. Emmick


Last month the words of Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), graced these pages. His message was a simple one: The injustices faced by migrant farm workers must be ended, and the way to justice is organizing for self determination through collective bargaining. His message may be simple, but his task is not. Farm workers are the most marginalized people in American society, and in a traditionally anti-union state such as North Carolina, their cries for justice often go unheard. The task of organizing workers for self determination may be difficult, but it is not impossible. FLOC's motto of "Hasta La Victoria!" ("Until the Victory!") is not an empty slogan. It is a promise. FLOC will win a union contract. However, in order to achieve this victory, North Carolina's farm workers need your help.

Migrant and seasonal farm workers have the most important job in the world — providing food for the masses — but they are given a position in society that does not reflect that importance. Farm workers live under a system of oppressive wages and living conditions. The average annual income for a farm worker family of four is $7,500. Agricultural laborers are often paid by a piece rate system rather than an hourly wage, and their income is totally dependent on weather conditions. Those who give us an abundant and inexpensive food supply rarely have enough money to feed their own families. Workers are considered "independent contractors" rather than employees, and are therefore unprotected by Social Security, Workers' Compensation, Child Labor Protection, Minimum Wage, Environmental Safety, and basic sanitation regulations. Migrants often live in labor camps that consist of small cabins. An entire family may share a 10'x12' one room dwelling that serves as the kitchen, living room, bedroom, and storage. In these camps as many as 50 people may share a single outhouse toilet. Working conditions are similarly bad. Pesticide exposure puts workers at risk everyday on the job, and the level of intimidation by supervisors is high.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is working to end these atrocities by listening to workers' needs and empowering them to fight for justice. FLOC is organizing workers on farms contracted to the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the largest pickle producer in the South (and the second largest in the nation). Baldemar Velasquez has asked Mt. Olive CEO William Bryan to engage in a dialogue to improve workers' conditions. But Mr. Bryan, insisting that Mt. Olive neither owns cucumber fields nor employs farmworkers, has refused to meet him. Although technically Mr. Bryan is correct, his is a vertically integrated industry and responsibility for the laborers' conditions ultimately lies with his company: Without migrant workers, the Mt. Olive Pickle Company would have no cucumbers with which to make its profits; also the price that Mt. Olive pays farmers for cucumbers determines the wages that farm workers receive. FLOC is seeking to negotiate a three-way contract between Mt. Olive, its farmers, and the farm workers. This contract will provide better wages and living conditions for farm workers, better prices for farmers, and better production for the company. FLOC also hopes to change workers' status from independent contractors to employees, thus giving them protection under the law. This win-win arrangement has proven successful in Ohio and Michigan where FLOC currently has contracts with Campbell's Soup, Dean Food's, Vlasic, and Heinz USA. Many growers in the midwest who were once opposed to FLOC have seen its results and now stand among its most ardent supporters.

This is not an easy fight. In a state with a history of racism and anti-unionism, North Carolina's farm workers need the support of the larger community. The National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM), an ecumenical non-profit organization, is working to enlist support for FLOC's campaign, and your help is needed. Daniel Opoku and Matt Emmick, NFWM's community organizers in Benson, NC are working to develop a coalition of support among our community groups and churches.

NFWM is now looking for individuals and groups who, willing to move beyond mere lip service, will take action to fight for justice. No matter what your abilities or resources, there is a way for everyone to get involved. The most basic thing that we can all do is pray for justice for farm workers.

NFWM also encourages those who care about justice to write a letter to Mr. Bryan, asking him to begin a dialogue with FLOC. (PO Box 609 Mt. Olive NC 28365; please also send a copy to NFWM at the address below) NFWM is also establishing support groups for the Mt. Olive campaign. These groups will sponsor speaking engagements by FLOC and NFWM staff, give written endorsements of the campaign, maintain an information exchange with NFWM, plan fund raisers, distribute literature about FLOC to newsletters, newspapers, or church bulletins, and encourage other organizations to support FLOC's efforts. We encourage groups to get creative and sponsor their own activities as well. FLOC and NFWM also accept donations of any kind. Money is always nice, but items such as office supplies, office furniture, and computers are also needed. NFWM is currently searching for donated office space, and desperately needs a car for statewide business travel.

FLOC and NFWM desperately need your participation in these activities as well as in public actions that may occur during the campaign. To find out more about these actions, or about starting a support group, please contact: NFWM, PO BOX 461, Benson, NC 2750?, (919) 894-7241; e-mail: <DanielNFWM@aol.com> or <MattNFWM@aol.com>

  Matt Emmick works as a community organizer for the National Farm Worker Ministry in Benson, NC.  

home ||| current issue ||| past stories
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites

Send comments to prism@sunsite.unc.edu.