8000 ‘Guest Workers’ Join Farm Union in North Carolina

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) signed in mid-September a historic contract covering 8,000 seasonal guest workers who travel each year from Mexico to work the fields of North Carolina. H2A workers (so designated because of their seasonal visa status) are allowed to enter the country to work for a particular employer, and must leave as soon as their employment ends.

“This is tremendous,” exclaimed Leticia Zavala, organizing director for FLOC. “It’s the first contract ever to cover H2A workers in the United States, and the biggest contract in the history of North Carolina. It was won by farmworkers, the poorest people, not covered under labor relations law.”

The agreement follows FLOC’s five-year boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. Mt. Olive growers represent a majority of the NCGA, and Mt. Olive President Bill Bryan has been a major booster of the H2A program.

As a result of relentless union pressure, the Grower’s Association had agreed to remain neutral in FLOC’s bid to organize the H2A workers. On the heels of this agreement, students, religious volunteers, and organizers on loan from other unions assisted FLOC in a six-week blitz to sign up the 4,000-plus workers needed to win recognition.

The union separately negotiated a sidebar agreement with Mt. Olive, assuring neutrality on any non-association farm that sells pickles to Mt. Olive, and a special membership to join the Association for growers who are not using the H2A program but want to be covered by the agreement.

“There are about 20 growers who are not members of the Association that will join it in some way, but are currently not using H2A workers. This is a pretty creative and extensive agreement,” stated FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez.

CONDITIONS EXPOSED?

According to Velasquez, Bryan’s support for H2A made the program a natural target. The union originally focused on farms within a 40-mile radius from Mt. Olive, and exposed the conditions of guest workers to the media.

Zavala credited the victory to the “exposure that we put on the conditions, and the education we did to consumers about the responsibilities of pickle companies and the industry as a whole, instead of focusing on certain farmers. It is the responsibility of the entire industry; that’s what worked for us before in Ohio, and that’s what worked now.”

The NCGA employs about 8,500 workers on more than 1,000 farms, but FLOC expects those numbers to decrease slightly since some growers will take government buyouts to stop growing tobacco. Also, Velasquez noted, “some growers will quit because they won’t want to sit down with a Mexican union.”

ENDING THE BLACKLIST

The union negotiation team consisted of 10 farmworkers who were elected by an 80-worker advisory committee. Velasquez noted that “a week ago we all sat for over four hours in the association headquarters going through the draft of the agreement, argued about a number of things, but were able to come to terms. They [the negotiating team] were really excited.”

The contract’s major selling point is elimination of the blacklist. For years, workers were fired and blacklisted—sometimes for reasons such as requesting a bathroom or water break. Once fired, they had to return to Mexico, with no prospect of legal return.

The new contract establishes a seniority system with preference for union members, and sets up a swift 21-day, three-step grievance procedure so workers can complain about medical or other issues without fear of retaliation. The union will also get to oversee the legitimacy of the process as the workers return next year.

“They practically gave us everything that didn’t have to do with money,” Velasquez noted. “Bottom line is the money. We asked for $14 per day to cover workers’ food costs while traveling, 11 days travel there and back. Eight dollars is required per day under H2A regulations, and they were paying $9. They agreed to $10.50 per day, but the Association itself will pay for it, not the growers.”

The Mt. Olive sidebar agreement raises workers’ wages 10 percent over three years. FLOC hopes that the wage agreement will become the pacesetter for unionized pickle makers such as Vlasic, Mr. Pickle, Paradise, Van Holten, and Peter Piper.

AN INTERNATIONAL FOCUS

FLOC now intends to sign up new members in Mexico. Since North Carolina’s “right-to-work” laws don’t apply in Mexico, FLOC intends to make the union card one of the basic pieces of information workers fill out when they fill out H2A forms in Mexico.

Anti-union forces are already planning a counter-attack, and the Farm Bureau hopes to organize an alternative to the NCGA to bring in H2A workers without a union. “The bad thing is this agreement will make us a target for all the anti-union forces in the entire region,” Velasquez said.

FLOC will see some growing pains as it adjusts to servicing the contract on over 1,000 farms. FLOC intends to have one rank-and-file union rep for every camp that has more than 20 workers. Currently, 100 farms have over 20 workers. Staff assigned to one of eight regions will service the remaining 900 farms. The reps will each receive two half-day trainings, one paid by the Association, the other paid by FLOC, and they will be paid $10/hour for processing grievances.

FLOC has 60 growers organized in northwest Ohio, with 4,000 workers, Velasquez said, and “they handled over 600 grievances in 2004. Almost 200 came from the Mt. Olive operation in Ft. Grove, Ohio—one big station with 200 workers.” Mt. Olive already buys union pickles from growers in Ohio.

“We are going to have to hire a community organizer and an organizer to go after the next target,” added Zavala. “Our plan is to create a standard for all farmworkers in North Carolina. H2A workers have more rights, and we want to bring the undocumented up to the same level. That is going to be the next big task we will need someone to lead up.”

ORGANIZE THE SOUTH

“North Carolina was the least unionized state in the country; it won’t be now that this agreement is signed,” claimed Velasquez. “This sends a signal to the rest of organized labor.” Velasquez observed that unions that talk about organizing the south are focusing on particular factories in areas with high union density. “It doesn’t make sense. If you want to organize the South you have to go where there isn’t density and create it.”

The agreement could also affect the immigration debate, where guest worker programs have been seen as a serious threat to labor rights. “The guest worker program has been characterized as an abusive slave labor program by opponents,” said Velasquez, “but if it’s unionized and there is an independent third force to file grievances and hold the program accountable, it removes a lot of the criticism. Why not expand it if you have unions holding it accountable?”