|Baldemar Velasquez described the efforts needed to create a more just food system. English photo
Our Food System: The Tie to Immigration, Migrant Workers, Exploitation and Human Trafficking
Sunday, September 22, 2018 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine
Born in 1947, Baldemar Velasquez grew up in a migrant farmworker family based in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Each year his family migrated to the Midwest and other regions to work in the fields, planting, weeding and harvesting such crops as pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, sugar beets and berries. They traveled in trucks and old cars, and often lived in barns and converted chicken coops. The family eventually settled in Ohio, and Velasquez worked in the fields seasonally through high school. In 1969 he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bluffton College.
Incensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farmworkers, Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. Under his leadership FLOC has set international precedents in labor history, including being the first union to negotiate multi-party collective bargaining agreements, and the first to represent H-2A international guest workers under a labor agreement. Velasquez is an internationally recognized leader in the farmworker and immigrant rights movements. He has received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, a Development of People Award by the Campaign for Human Development of the U.S. Catholic Conference, an Aguila Azteca Award by the government of México, and several honorary doctorates. In 2009 he was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council.
His September 22 keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair is posted on YouTube and appears below, edited for space.
I come to you today speaking as a farmworker who worked alongside my parents in the fields in Texas, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina.
I’ve learned in organizing poor people for 50 years that our food system is in trouble, that globalization of our food systems is driving inequality around the globe, including in the United States, where we still have a large problem with immigrant workers who are harvesting crops. For the last five years, I’ve visited our counterpart workers in other countries. Members of FLOC harvest 32 different crops that are under a labor agreement in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio.
Greed, Militarism and Policy Create Poverty
We share three things with our counterparts in other parts of the world. One is extreme poverty. It’s why a lot of our children work in the fields. I started working in the fields when I was 4, not because my parents believed in child labor, but because the alternative was not eating. Poverty is accompanied by greed because food systems in this country and throughout the world are designed by human beings. Somebody’s got to put the food on the shelves of our stores, and how they get there is driven by a corporate design that marginalizes people at the bottom of the production chain. So small farmers and migrant workers are probably some of the biggest victims in our food supply systems.
Connected to poverty and greed is militarism. What’s happening throughout the world, with any particular commodity that has a global supply chain, is driven by our trade agreements and our foreign policy. I tell people, if you’re mad about Mexicans coming across our border, maybe the first thing to think about is not displacing them in their own country by our trade agreements. Human beings have a right to stay home and produce foods locally to feed their own families. When Mexican farmers can’t compete with American corn farmers, the government will not protect them with tariffs, so they can’t sell the excess corn they grow for their own consumption in their own local market to buy the other things a family needs. In the first three years of NAFTA, a Carnegie Endowment study indicated that we had displaced 3 million corn farmers. Those farmers and their families had to migrate to find jobs to feed their families. They come to the United States to do agricultural work, any way they can. They’ll hire smugglers to bring them over the border; many pay $6,000 to $7,000 to a smuggler to get them to Ohio. Then they have to work to bring other family members here. Many are members of our union.
We [the United States] enforce these trade agreements in our foreign policies to enable investors to make their money in those foreign countries, especially Mexico and Central America. So our foreign policy is to prop up governments that are conducive to our investments. When we negotiated NAFTA with Mexico, the United States made the Mexican government modify its constitution and its laws, allowing North American investors to have majority ownership of businesses in Mexico – previously illegal. Then American companies, especially our banks, take over. All the Mexican banks now are owned by North American banks, which control the interest that they charge to small producers, small farmers and small shopkeepers in Mexico. So we have a global problem.
What we need is what I’m seeing here. This is my first time in Maine, and I’m just stunned with what I see. We need to proliferate all of you all over the country and figure out a way to conform these global corporations to be run by people like you. We can’t continue to do the kind of foreign policy and trade agreements that we have, and not have the social problems and debates that we’re having today. The debate on immigration is not addressing the real issues of global economic inequity and the way we push people out of their homes to benefit some investor. That has got to stop.
To understand how militarism is tied to our policies, read Philip Agee’s “Inside the Company: CIA Diary.” Learn the role the CIA played in overthrowing Salvador Allende and instituting the dictator Pinochet in Chile. Same thing with “Diary of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins. They show how we progress the dominance of another country to dominate its minerals, resources, land and labor. We have to stop the proliferation of that inequity. We can only do it by having people who are conscious of this inequity and by empowering the people at the bottom to have a voice in those decisions. This is why I’m a labor organizer.
Why Labor Unions?
If you have a problem with labor unions, I say, get over it because everybody’s in the union. You are all members of something – of cooperatives, of this organization that puts on this fair. Why? To confront obstacles to make life better for your family, your children and their future.
I debated a businessman in Ohio who had a hard time with our recruiting high school kids for our immigrant rights marches and our campaigns for Ohio farmworkers. I said, “You have a problem with my ministry, I need to talk to you.” He said, “OK. Meet me at my country club.” So I had lunch with him at his country club. I asked why he was a member of the country club. He said, “This is where I meet with people like me to talk about problems that we have in common so that we can overcome them.” He was a member of Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce for the same reason. I said, “How come all you white guys can have all these unions, and we Mexicans can’t have one?” I said to him, “Everybody is a member of a union. Just get over it. Because it’s easier to deal with people who are in a collective and are organized than people who are individuals.” You can overcome obstacles in your life, maybe – but it will be easier if you do it with other folks.
We need to challenge inequities by organizing people on the bottom to find their collective voice. This is what farmworkers and immigrant workers need.
I didn’t immigrate from Mexico into the United States. A lot of us Mexicans have a problem with that. You know the history, right? We were the first victims of the expansion of inequity through our foreign policy and our trade policies. It’s weird for me to see cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Albuquerque, San Antonio. Who do you think named these cities? Not North Americans but Mexicans and indigenous people who were born on this continent. So I say we Mexicans didn’t immigrate anywhere; immigrants overrode us and switched the borders. And now that we want to come home to our original homelands, we’re illegals. There’s a saying in the immigrants’ rights movement that we didn’t cross any borders; the borders crossed us.
Look at the way they couch the conquering of that land, stealing it from the Indians and the Mexicans. They came up with euphemisms like Manifest Destiny, when what was really happening was the theft of those lands, including in the Rio Grande Valley where I was born. They were stolen by land development companies. The McAllen Canal Company (originally the Briggs Land Development Corporation) was one of the biggest thieves of land in South Texas in the early 1900s. The Texas Rangers were really a vigilante group to protect the white investors in those development companies in South Texas, running Mexicans off their own land. I studied the theft of those lands in the Rio Grande Valley. From 1900 to 1912, titles to those lands changed from Hispanic to Anglo surnames. The 1910 Mexican Revolution was used as an excuse to invade those lands, saying they were running Mexican bandits off the lands. It’s part of the history of this country of how we use the military, economic policies and economic development as excuses to marginalize the people at the bottom. Many of us descended from those Mexican families in South Texas, and we started migrating all over the country to be able to feed ourselves and our families.
Inspired to Organize
In 50 years of organizing work, I’ve come across many inspirational people who fed my desire to organize – the only way to defend ourselves. I spent many days with Cesar Chavez talking about organizing on our long trips. I ran into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he invited me to Atlanta to help plan a poor people’s campaign in 1968. The first time I saw Dr. King, in Atlanta, he walked into a room where 30 Latino and Indian leaders gathered to discuss the poor people’s campaign. He came in with Andy Young on one side and Ralph Abernathy on the other. When I saw that column of black pastors come in, I said, “I want to be like those guys.” When I saw Cesar Chavez, I said, “I want to be like that guy.”
Somewhere sitting out here are the next Dr. Kings, the next Cesar Chavezes, the next revolutionary who’s going to organize the people and inspire us to fight inequity in this world, particularly in our food systems. It’s got to be you, sitting out there. And don’t say that it can’t be me. Growing up in those fields picking tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, cherries, apples, row after row, tree after tree, bush after bush, I thought, “How can life be just this? There’s got to be more to life than this.” We barely made enough money to buy the food we were picking; we had to buy the cheapest food we could find.
Nothing Becomes Something
No good change comes without sacrifice, because the opposition will use everything it can to stop and undercut you. Cesar Chavez said, “Look, we farmworkers have nothing. But nothing becomes something very important because if you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. And the rich have got money to lose.” They’ll put a lot of money into stopping you, but time is the thing we’ve got, and there’s a lot more time than there is money. So if you don’t give up, at some point they’ve got to talk to you.
Campbell Soup Win
Our current campaign is trying to organize 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina. That’s the migrant population; most of them are undocumented; some come with guest worker H-2A visas. They’re all terribly exploited. A lot are indentured laborers; a lot are smuggled there to benefit agricultural production. The biggest agricultural crop in North Carolina is tobacco, but the workers who harvest tobacco harvest 32 different crops – everything from sweet potatoes to cucumbers to strawberries, even Christmas trees in the fall. If we organize those tobacco workers, we automatically organize the farmworkers for all these other crops. So big tobacco becomes a big target because the corporations that buy tobacco are the wealthiest. Our job is to get tobacco to put more money into their supply chain, money designated to get to the people on the bottom.
We did that in the ‘80s by taking on the Campbell Soup Company. Remember their commercial, with the two chubby Campbell’s kids? We showed them who the real Campbell’s kids were. We took pictures of migrant farmworker kids harvesting tomatoes, and we put them in ads in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune. We did a corporate campaign against Campbell Soup. We took on its banks, its corporate profile, and we boycotted its product for eight years.
We understood that the company set the price. If the company only paid $32 per ton for tomatoes, and two-thirds of that is measly wages for your labor, and the profit margin is maybe $60 an acre on a 60-acre contract, that’s not much of a profit margin for the farmer. So we figured that to improve our wages as farmworkers and to get some benefits like health care, we had to go to the people who set the prices – the Campbell Soup Company. Everybody said Campbell Soup will not negotiate a contract with a group of workers who are not their employees. Campbell Soup told us, “The farmers are your employers. Go negotiate with the farmers.” We said, “We’re going to boycott you until you negotiate a contract directly with us.” And in 1986, Campbell Soup did what everybody said it would never do. It signed the first supply chain collective bargaining agreement in labor history. We doubled the price per ton for the farmers, we increased our wages 80 percent, and we made the company buy a Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance policy for all the tomato pickers.
Unionizing Tobacco and Produce Workers
Now we’re asking big tobacco to do that for us in North Carolina, because when you organize a tobacco union, you’re also organizing the workers who harvest all the other produce. We’re telling them to enable farmers to unionize all over the world where they buy tobacco.
Two years ago I had the international union federation assemble all the tobacco-growing sector unions in Africa. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi and South Africa are the tobacco-producing nations in Africa that compete directly with us, through the same companies. British American Tobacco owns Reynolds American and buys all its tobacco in North Carolina and Africa. They pit us against each other. We said we’re not going to allow that to happen anymore.
The supply chain agreements that we pioneered in Ohio with Campbell Soup, Heinz, Dean Foods, Green Bay Foods, and in 2005 with the Mount Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina, increased prices to growers and increased wages of workers. Now we want tobacco companies to do that all over the world, because my heart went out to those workers in Africa when I saw them in the plantations in Malawi. It was like walking home. I saw those moms, and the tears that rolled down their cheeks because they couldn’t feed their children, because their kids were working in those tobacco fields. Do you think those tears of that mom were any saltier than the tears of my mother? Or of any mother who wants to feed her kids and make a life for her family?
I said to my brothers and sisters on that trip, we have to make this demand to British American Tobacco the same here as in the United States. I asked a brother how much he gets paid in a flue-cured tobacco operation. They get paid about 85 cents per day. So we told British American Tobacco in a joint statement with those African unions that we want them to implement a practical mechanism on freedom of association outside government participation. They can put it in the purchase agreements for the tobacco they buy all over the world.
Imagine if we duplicated that with every other food commodity. People ask me, “How are you going to solve the child labor problem all over the world?” How did we solve the child labor problem in the United States? We used to have children in the coal mines and textile mills. We solved that problem by unionizing. Workers negotiated their kids out of those sites and into schools. In the ‘80s, 30 percent of the workforce were children under 14 years of age in the cucumber fields of Vlasik Pickles, the largest pickle company in America, owned by Campbell Soup. We negotiated to improve the living situations and to get those kids into school in the summer during harvest and to increase the wages of workers to compensate for the lost wages of the children.
Targeting Convenience Stores
We can solve the child labor problem now if we have free labor association all over the world. To make this happen, everybody can play a role. We’re going after the convenience stores, the retailers that distribute that tobacco. The big convenience stores are Circle K, 7-Eleven, Wawa and Kangaroo – all part of the McLane Distribution System owned by Warren Buffett. They account for one-third of big tobacco’s consolidated revenue. So we’re asking you to go to your local 7-Eleven, your local Circle K, and tell the manager – you can download a letter from our website (https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/until-reynolds-signs-an-agreement-with-floc-drop-vuse) – we want you to deliver this letter to the higher-ups in your corporate chain. Tell them you’re not going to buy anything in their store until they remove the e-cigarette product Vuse – Reynolds’ tobacco product of the future. They’re promoting it mostly to young people.
Circle K and 7-Eleven will call Reynolds America and say, “Why are we being harassed by these consumers because you’ve got this problem with the farmworkers?” Reynolds will ask us, “What is it going to take to make this go away?”
Security From Community
The only thing I own in my name is my car with almost 200,000 miles on it and my guitar. When you’ve got nothing to lose, that is a big weapon because the opposition can’t take anything away from you.
Somebody asked me, what about your future, your security? When you’re doing something for somebody else, people are going to help you. I’ve done this for 50 years. I don’t have a pension; I don’t have anything to lose. I’ve never had to worry. Growing up poor helped prepare me for this mission. If I have pinto beans and corn tortillas, I’m happy as a pig in mud. You’ve got to travel light to be involved in this movement. When you’re doing something for somebody else, that draws people to you.
When people talk to me about immigrants and illegal aliens, I say that the Bible says do not exploit and oppress the aliens. Do not mistreat them. “You shall govern the aliens with the same laws with which you govern yourself.”
To do this fight, you have to have a vision and a commitment, regardless of the cost. I am grateful to do this work, because it brings me into contact with people like Rob Shetterly, who hosted me these last couple of days; all the great people I met on this trip. You have a heart for others, and you’re doing these kinds of things here because you’re going to make life better for other people. And if people follow your example, the world would be a whole lot better.
People ask when I’m going to retire. The only time you really retire is when you’re 12 feet under. Until then, you’ve got a lot of experience and life to share. Share it to the fullest ability that you can, and impart the humanity that you have with others, and do what is commanded of us – to love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible doesn’t say love your neighbor if he looks like you or talks like you or is in the same political party. If somehow you’re connected to that person, that’s your neighbor. Get to know your neighbor. Get to know the person that you know the least about. That’s the only way we’re going to bridge the cultures, the differences and the inequities that we have in our lives. Because if you would, you’ll have compassion for that person, and you won’t be part of a food system that exploits them, that takes advantage of them and promotes inequality throughout their world.
The scriptures warn that we don’t fight against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities. Greed is a principality, and it takes control of people’s lives. We need pilgrims like you all to walk it out on this earth, to live it. Don’t just talk about it. Together we can make a better world.