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Baldemar Velásquez Draws on Years of Farm Worker Organizing to Continue Struggle in Anti-Union South

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Baldemar Velásquez, founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO, has been organizing migrant workers since he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. An Ohio delegate at the Democratic National Convention, Velásquez has been working to organize migrant farm workers in North Carolina — more than 90 percent of whom are undocumented. On Monday, Velásquez was part of a Southern Workers Assembly here in Charlotte that brought together farm laborers along with others who work in the manufacturing and service industries. Their challenge is significant: The South is the least unionized region in the United States, and union density in North Carolina is just 2 percent. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.” We’re broadcasting from Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s the first day of the Democratic National Convention. I’m Amy Goodman. And I want to turn right now to Baldemar Velásquez. He is the founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee of the AFL-CIO. He has been working to organize migrant farm workers in North Carolina, more than 90 percent of whom are undocumented. Many of them harvest crops for the nation’s largest tobacco companies, like Reynolds American, which makes cigarette brands such as Camel, Pell Mell, American Spirit.

On Monday, Velásquez was part of a Southern Workers Assembly here in Charlotte that brought together farm laborers along with others who work in the manufacturing and service industries. Their challenge is significant. The South is the least unionized region in the United States, and union density in North Carolina is just 2 percent. Baldemar Velásquez is also in Charlotte to attend the Democratic National Convention. He’s a delegate from Ohio. He’s been a labor organizer since the '60s, when Dr. King asked him to help organize the Poor People's Campaign. Today he continues to work with civil rights leaders, including Reverend William Barber.

Baldemar Velásquez, welcome to Democracy Now! So, you’re a delicate on the inside from Ohio, but I saw you on Sunday speaking from the protesters’ platform outside.

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, I’ve always been protesting on the outside. It just so happens that we’ve been able to get on the inside this time. So, we’ll see if we can get our voice heard inside, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me start with the question of the Democrats’ choice to have their Democratic convention here in Charlotte, a right-to-work state. No hotel in Charlotte is unionized. What are your thoughts about this? Were you opposed to this?

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, there’s a lot of things that we consume that are non-union products. Every day, even the best of us trade unionists find ourselves in stores, grocery stores, other places—certainly the food we eat are not entirely unionized in terms of maybe the food processing industry, to some extent. But certainly a lot of the vegetables and fruits that we eat, they come from the hands of farm workers that feed the nation, and there’s hardly any union representation around the country as far as that goes.

But the important thing is that, here in North Carolina, like you said, the union density being so low, it’s kind of like facing a bully. Sometimes you got to get in his face and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and to inject some reality to that person to change his ways. And the science of labor relations in agriculture in this state is nonexistence. The only precedent we have here is our agreement that we have here covering 7,000 guest workers, where now we are in the process of establishing a science of labor relations with the employers and workers and how to get along and how to resolve problems, and I think it’s got to be expanded.

AMY GOODMAN: Baldemar, talk about the work camps, what are they, about an hour from here.

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: They’re—in the farms that we have under the union contract, there are much better standards, because they’re under—they’re guest workers that come with a visa, and we’ve been able to guarantee rights of those workers. But outside of that, the majority of the workforce in this state is undocumented, over 90 percent of the workforce. And they live in, literally, squalor. They’re brought here mostly by labor contractors, who are themselves very abusive. And the oversight, in terms of enforcement of the regulatory laws that we have on the books, are difficult to do in remote areas of the state. So they’re out of sight and out of mind, not only to the public, but to the regulators. And so, our job is to go out there and try to expose this and organize those workers and compel the industries that are responsible for this labor force and hold them accountable. And we’re talking about the strategy we pioneered back in the ’80s in terms of the supply chain of the major manufacturers and buyers of the crops that contract crops here in the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the companies they’re working for?

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Reynolds America, Philip Morris International, Altria, Philip Morris USA, Lorillard. British American Tobacco uses a lot of tobacco from North Carolina. The Japanese, Japanese Tobacco International, buys a lot of tobacco here. So we’re talking about global corporations, and that’s just in tobacco. Then we have the buyers of our sweet potatoes, the buyers of our vegetables and fruits, some retailers. So, there’s a lot of people in the manufacturing side that have to procure the raw product from the field to get into their processing facilities, and so they designed this procurement system, which is their supply chain. And what they do is they marginalize people on the bottom of the supply chains, and those are the people we have to get to stand up. We have to find a way to get farmers, small farmers in this state, and the migrant workers to work together and to reconcile the inequities in those supply chains.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about history, how you got involved with organizing. Actually, I mean, we’re here in North Carolina. You’re very involved with organizing in North Carolina, but you’re from Ohio.

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Right. I was raised—

AMY GOODMAN: Where’s your family originally from?

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: We’re originally from South Texas, along the Rio Grande River, the border there. I was born in Pharr, Texas, which is maybe a dozen miles from the Mexican border. And my family was recruited in the 1950s by field men contractors from Ohio and Michigan to come to Ohio to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers and all the crops up here. So, from the time I was six years old, I was working in the fields with my mom and dad, migrating around and harvesting crops, just trying to survive. And so, I know the life.

And I got involved because I was an undergraduate student. I started in South Texas at Pan American. And coming—I was being raised in Ohio, but coming back South to seeing the inequities of the Latino population, here you had like 80 percent of the population was Latino in South Texas, and yet all of the—all of the elected officials were white. I said, “Well, how is this?” Then I saw how my grandparents were being treated, the—oh, the racism, which was more overt in South Texas than it was in Ohio, caused me to get concerned about that, so my attention turned to the social sciences. And I transferred to Ohio, to a college in Ohio, and I got involved in the student rights movement and the civil rights movement and volunteered time with the Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland, lived in a tenement house with an African American and slept on his couch with the rats, which he questioned me one night—one morning, he says, “You’re the only volunteer that hasn’t complained about the rats. How’s that?” I said, “Well, me and my brother were raised in labor camps, and we didn’t have any money to buy toys, so we played with the rats. We made games of playing with the rats.” And so, he said, “Well, good Lord, son, why aren’t you doing something for your own people?” So that was the question of the decade. And that summer, after my sophomore year in undergraduate school, I started organizing the migrant workers.

So, thanks to the civil rights movement, I sort of took lessons from the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is a name—we coined the phrase “the Farm Labor Organizing Committee” after SNCC, actually. I thought, mistakenly, that all we had to do was tell the regulatory people that these laws were being broken—you know, the child labor laws, the minimum wage laws—and they’d come in and fix everything, right? Well, I learned differently, that the enforcement of laws was practically nonexistence, like it is today, in a lot of places in agriculture.

AMY GOODMAN: You knew Dr. King?

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: We met one time. It was when I was invited to come to Atlanta and help plan the Poor People’s Campaign. And that was a very shaping experience in my life, because what came forth there, Dr. King had seemed to message us that the civil rights movement was just not about black people, it was about poor people, that it was a class issue, and that all poor people needed to unite to fight against the disparity in our incomes, in our economy in this country. He had come out against the war in Vietnam. And I felt like here was an opportunity to coalesce with other people who are poor, who are exploited.

As a matter of fact, that night, in the evening, he coined a phrase that stuck with me forever. It might have passed other people, but not me. He—the discussion came down to, how do we as poor people, who have nothing, who have no power, who have no money, we can’t influence people—how do we compel the world’s largest corporations, like Campbell Soup Co., Heinz USA, the manufacturers that—whose tomatoes we picked and cucumbers we picked—how do we compel them to sit down and talk to us poor people who have nothing? And the response was that when you impede the rich man’s ability to make money, anything is negotiable. So, every campaign that we do is focused on trying to figure out what is the leverage there.

AMY GOODMAN: Baldemar Velásquez, for both Republicans and Democrats, the Latino voter is the prize. This is the first time you’re a delegate inside, as well as protesting outside. What message do you have for President Obama?

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: I think that we like fighters. We want him to use his presidency more as a bully pulpit. I mean, they’re trying to deny him anything, so he can’t take credit for anything, to get Mr. Romney in office—Mr. Romney, the candidate of self-deportation, rollbacks of the gains that we’ve made with the DREAM students. And so, that’s the option that we have. It’s serious. We have to do whatever we can to galvanize our Latino population—our Latinos in Ohio are now about 5 percent of the voting population, and it’s imperative that we use these issues to tell him how significant this election is for us as Latinos. So, we’re hoping that we’re going to be able to—

AMY GOODMAN: How are you organizing farm workers?


AMY GOODMAN: How are you organizing people to vote?

BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, see, we work with the established Latino population who live in Ohio, because most of them were former farm workers. And so, some of them were members of our union back in the '70s and 80s, and now they're residents in Ohio, so we’re reaching out to those people and organizing in their neighborhoods.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Baldemar Velásquez, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Baldemar Velásquez is president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, with the AFL-CIO, also here as an Ohio delegate at the Democratic National Convention, a delegate inside for the first time. And that does it for our broadcast. We’re broadcasting two hours every day. If your station is only broadcasting one, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.

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