(This is reprinted from an article published in the June 1999 issue of Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World.)
Bearing an eagle silhouette and the words "Hasta La Victoria," the red, black, and yellow banners of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) flapped in vivid opposition to a backdrop of gray skies over Tampa, Florida. On this Saturday morning, the sky yielded a soft rain; a release from the week long heat. Fernando Cuevas Jr. sheltered his younger brother under his umbrella while organizer Dan Belgrad offered to share his umbrella with a new supporter who arrived at the Food Lion supermarket at 10 A.M.. Shoppers accustomed to living in a land of perpetual sunshine, hurried to their cars. FLOC organizers decided shoppers would not be receptive to leaflets and picket signs as they dodged the drizzle, so the rally was postponed.
In the fields, Fernando Cuevas Sr. observed, rain changes nothing. If there are cucumbers to pick, they pick. If it rains, they work. If the sun beats down, they work. The work days are long; ten, twelve, fourteen hour days are common. It's a marriage of sorts, this relationship between farmworkers and field; between men, women, and children who live in squalid, crowded quarters and the land they work until it's time to move on to the next crop. Asked if farm workers have employer provided health insurance, Cuevas replied they don't need it, explaining that pickers don't get sick. "We can't afford to," he said, adding that if they get sick, they work anyway.
Teresa Ivey, a Tampa activist and nurse practitioner, agreed. Ivey works at a Plant City clinic where many of the patients are migrant farmworkers' children.
"They don't go to the clinic themselves," she said of the adult farmworkers. "They bring their children."
"They (the government) are federally subsidizing what employers should be paying for," Cuevas said.
Employers in Southern right-to-work states like North Carolina, where the Mt. Olive pickle company is based, are openly hostile to unions. While organizing in North Carolina, Cuevas says his life was threatened by growers. He was told, "The Yankees won the war, but us Southerners never freed the slaves. We use them now as sharecroppers." Eighty percent of North Carolina farmworkers are Hispanic.
Farmworkers in non-union southern states are paid under a complicated piece work system that many workers don't understand. Without a contract, they are open to exploitation.
"There is no enforcement to make sure workers get paid the minimum," said Cuevas. In contrast, union workers in states like Ohio and Michigan are guaranteed a minimum of $6 an hour. In 1993, sharecropping in Ohio and Michigan was eliminated by agreement, and farmworkers became employees with rights.
Cuevas said their goal is to "organize the South." FLOC has fought this war before. In 1978, the union clashed with the Campbell Soup Company when Ohio farm workers went on strike in fields contracted to that company. At issue were sub minimum wages, exclusion from protective legislation, poor sanitation, health care, and housing. A national consumer boycott of Campbell and its major supporters eventually succeeded in securing a contract in February 1986 between FLOC, Campbell, and thirty-five family farmers. Contracts with Heinz, Vlasic, and 49 growers followed in 1987.
Though for the moment rained out, FLOC promises to be back. On this unlikely day, the farmworker union picked up four new supporters. More pickets are planned for June and July in various South Florida locations.
-Cris D'Angelo, Tampa
The Mt. Olive pickle boycott had a successful outcome, eventually winning a contract for the cucumber pickers. Go to www.floc.com to read more about the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.