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Farm workers win early legal battle

Commercial NC media no-show for historic labor victory

by Michael Steinberg


[The following story records what may prove to be a key event in the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's drive to organize cucumber pickers at Mount Olive Pickle, a fight which promises to attract national attention in the near future. The Prism was the only news outlet to cover the event despite the fact that several other press organizations were notified that there was to be a confrontation. A staffer for a major newspaper commented that maybe if FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez gets beaten up, then his paper would cover it.]

T he harsh blue lights atop the Nash County sheriff's department vehicle sliced through the night. It was a little past 9:30 on Thursday, August 13.

The flashing lights eerily illuminated the scene at the Rainbow Farm labor camp. A uniformed man from the sheriff's department was handcuffing Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) president Baldemar Velasquez.

Rainbow Farms owner Cecil Williams looked on as the Nash County sheriff's department carried forth his trespassing complaint against Velasquez and three other FLOC organizers by placing them under arrest.

About 20 Latino farmworkers, who had been talking with the FLOC organizers for about an hour and a half, looked on at the collusion of local law enforcement and the man who employed them to pick tobacco.

On the side of the road next to the labor camp, another 20 observers—FLOC supporters, journalists, church people—watched warily, took notes and snapped pictures.

Velasquez was put in the back of the car with the flashing blue lights. The same treatment greeted FLOC organizer Ramiro Sarabia, then his compañero Raynaldo Medrano, and finally compañera Carmen Rodriguez-Winter.

The later two were deposited in another sheriff's car parked up the road, its blue lights pulsing sickeningly out of sync with the other vehicle's.

A second officer approached the roadside onlookers. He offered several somewhat creative explanations for why they had to leave the scene, the foremost of which was that they were also trespassing on Cecil Williams' private property.

Attorney Robert Willis, who was among those in this group, asserted that these people were on the public thoroughfare and had a legal right to be there.

The officer insisted that the Nash County sheriff's department had a van big enough to hold all the onlookers, should they choose to stay where they were and be arrested.

The farmworkers continued to take this all in through the menacing blue beams.

The Exclusion Rule

Earlier that evening FLOC's people had explained why its organizers were going to the labor camp. The farmworkers at the Rainbow Farms have been imported from Mexico by the North Carolina Growers Association under the federally-sponsored H2-A program. These workers are shuttled among Association members like Cecil Williams to pick NC tobacco, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and other crops.

According to a document distributed by FLOC, there were 1,331 H2-A workers employed by the North Carolina Growers Association as of August 10.

Another document spelled out the work rules of the Association, one of which claimed that "The employer reserves the right to exclude any person(s) from visiting housing premises" of farmworkers.

Robert Willis reported that in late June two attorneys from Farmworkers Legal Services had come to the labor camp to talk with a client who had been injured on the job. Cecil Williams, Willis said, had invoked the Growers Association exclusion rule, and had the Nash County sheriff's department threaten the legal workers with arrest if they didn't leave.

"They left," Willis (formerly with Farmworker Legal Services) said. "As far as I know, there haven't been any legal services outreach workers in Nash County since."

Willis also said that in 1979 two crew leaders employed by Cecil Williams had refused to let farmworker Robert Anderson stop working after he began to spit up blood in one of Williams' fields. Anderson died there. The crew bosses were later convicted of maintaining slave labor conditions. Williams himself was never charged with anything.

Farmyard gate-keeping

FLOC's Baldemar Velasquez pointed out a federal labor law that guarantees outreach workers the right to visit farmworkers "at their working, living or gathering areas." According to this law it is the farmworkers, not their employers, who decide who can visit them.

The issue here is that workers have a right to receive visitors" Velasquez said. "We are claiming our right to be at this labor camp. We won't leave unless the workers ask us to."

"The big picture," Velasquez continued, "has to do with Mount Olive Pickle Company supporting the exclusion of outreach workers, and with this grower [Cecil Williams] carrying the ball for the North Carolina Growers Association."

FLOC is currently carrying out a union organizing campaign with cucumber workers employed by growers contracted with the Mount Olive Pickle Company.

"Mount Olive Pickle Company has an immediate interest in the exclusion of visitors from H2-A workers," Velasquez asserted. "If we're to succeed in our organizing efforts, we have to confront this exclusion policy."

Velasquez also pointed out that Mount Olive Pickle Company was listed among agribiz supporters of Congressional bill H.R. 2377, which would expand and accelerate the H2-A program while further reducing farmworker legal rights.

Judgment night

The labor camp FLOC went to consisted of two flimsy barracks, an aging trailer, a separate building for water and washing, and two Porta Johns. The backyard was a tobacco field. All the residents were men.

A large sign mounted on one of the barracks blared: NO TRESPASSING/KEEP OUT/ENTRANCE BY PERMISSION ONLY OF RAINBOW FARMS.

It was dusk when FLOC arrived. Soon all the farmworkers were gathered around Baldemar Velasquez and the other organizers as they held forth on the right to organize a union and how it could benefit them.

A balmy August night was in full swing when the Nash County sheriff's department arrived, followed by Cecil Williams.

Baldemar Velasquez approached and shook hands with all of them, politely insisting on the rights of respect and dignity, and at the same time on our common humanity.

This did nothing to stop the arrests, but they turned out to be futile.

Shortly after 10:30 Robert Willis emerged from the Nash County sheriff's department, along with all four FLOC organizers. "The magistrate threw it out," Willis announced.

Magistrate Lewis had ruled that there was no probable cause for the arrests. Under North Carolina law, Lewis ruled, the farmworkers have a right to visitors. Therefore there had been no trespass.

"This is an important precedent," Baldemar Velasquez said. "We successfully challenged the threat of exclusion."

"It was important that the farmworkers saw us arrested," Velasquez went on. "Now when we return we can be confident in our right to enter these camps, and the workers can be confident in their right to organize."

It's not likely that the workers at the Rainbow Farm labor camp will soon forget the scene on the night of the flashing blue lights, nor the people who refused to be excluded.

  Michael Steinberg is an investigative reporter living in Durham. [In a late-breaking development, the US Dept. of Labor contacted FLOC to say that visitation could not be blocked by growers.—Ed.]  

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