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Raised in a family of migrant farm workers, Baldemar Velasquez had picked just about every kind of produce there is—except tobacco. And at 61, that's why he headed back into the fields for a week of hard labor this summer: to understand what it's like to spend long days in the hot North Carolina sun swallowed by rows of tall plants whose nicotine residue makes some workers too sick to continue picking.
Velasquez is president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, which is both a social movement and a labor union focusing on migrant farm workers. What he learned during those five and half days in the field is now fueling a campaign to bring justice to farm workers across the South's tobacco farms. Its target is RJ Reynolds, one of the major buyers of the product. Launched by FLOC and funded, in part, by Oxfam America, the campaign's aim is to convince the cigarette giant to come to the negotiating table to work out an agreement that will offer union representation to tobacco workers, providing them with better wages and improved working conditions.
"It ranks up there with the hardest work I've ever done," said Velasquez a few weeks after returning from North Carolina. "It's very hard and it's dirty. Add in the heat and humidity, and it's as bad as anything you get. The stalks grow over your head and block the breeze. It's like an oven."
Farm workers in the United States are among the lowest paid in the nation. The majority earn less than $7,500 a year. For tobacco pickers, the work is not only grueling, it can also be dangerous, especially if their employers fail to take basic safety precautions to protect workers' health. Summer heat in the south combined with poor air circulation among the shoulder-high plants create hazardous working conditions if there are few breaks in the picking pace and not enough drinking water available. Those conditions took a toll during the 2005 and 2006 harvests: Seven farm workers died from heat stroke.
"Those tragedies could have been prevented if there had been adequate scrutiny of conditions and compliance with safety requirements," said Guadalupe Gamboa, an Oxfam America program officer focusing on workers' rights. "RJ Reynolds has the money and buying power to improve those conditions. We see this campaign as a way to begin righting some of the severe inequities that leave marginalized workers with little control over their lives and livelihoods."
The green monster
Before July, Velasquez, who has an undergraduate degree in sociology and an advanced one in practical theology, had a gap in his education: the tobacco fields. He knew about picking potatoes; it's some of the hardest farm work there is. He has harvested more than his share of tomatoes. He has picked cotton and oranges and berries of all kinds. And as the founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, he can speak from experience about the hardships of each task. What he didn't know was tobacco.
"I represent tobacco workers. I've got to know what I'm talking about," Velasquez said. "It's a principle I have: Never ask someone to do something I wouldn't do first."
So, in late July, he joined a crew of hard-working men for a week of "topping and suckering"—a method of lopping flowers from the tops of tobacco plants and snapping off the new shoots before they become flowers to allow the leaves to grow as fat and green as possible.
But it was those lush green leaves that Velasquez worried about the most: Coated with nicotine that easily soaks through clothing and gloves, they are the source of "the green monster,"—a temporary sickness that strikes many workers laboring in the hot sun.
"Like poison ivy, you catch it through the skin. It's like a serious flu. You start vomiting," said Velasquez, adding that pesticides sprayed on the leaves can compound the effects of the illness. Farm workers wear long sleeves and pants to protect themselves as best they can. But when the leaves are wet with rain or dew, the nicotine sinks through quickly. On those days, workers will often don makeshift rain coats fashioned from garbage bags for a bit of extra protection. But there's a personal cost to that, too: They're sweltering.
"Even by 8 in the morning it's hot and humid," said Velasquez. "You're in that black plastic bag and within an hour you're soaked from sweat."
Velasquez was spared the misery of the green monster, but on the third day of work, his hands began to bother him. They felt tingly and numb.
"I asked the workers about it," he said. "They said all our hands are like that. By Saturday, after working all week, I couldn't close one of my hands without a lot of pain." Repetitive stress from the topping and suckering had caused the problem.
The day-and-night camaraderie of companions—with nicknames like Chemo, El Caballo (The Horse), Panza (because of his belly)—helped ease the exhaustion of the long days. But when the week came to an end, Velasquez was left with one overriding thought: "Surely there must be a way to grow our crops in a more just manner."
That's where the collective bargaining agreement comes in.
A campaign plan
With tobacco being the number one crop in North Carolina, tens of thousands of workers are employed in harvesting and cultivating it. Many of them are immigrants whose undocumented status leaves them exposed to exploitation, including near servitude to crew leaders. But others have come to the state under the US Department of Labor's H2A guest worker program—and most of those workers are contracted through the North Carolina Growers Association.
However, Velasquez says that many farmers in North Carolina won't hire the H2A workers because of the expenses associated with their employment. Not only are there paperwork costs that can add up to $900 per worker, there is also the obligation to pay the H2A employees the prevailing wage, which can often be $3 or $4 an hour more than federal minimum wage. Instead, farmers opt for the undocumented workers. Changing that scenario—making it affordable for farmers to hire H2A workers—is going to cost money.
"There's an economic reality to all of this, and that is who's going to pay for the improvements? My feeling is RJ Reynolds needs to do that," says Velasquez. "The first challenge is going to be to negotiate with them to offer a subsidy to the growers through a union contract that will cover the cost of bringing these workers in legally."
This will not be the first time FLOC has negotiated contracts between large companies and farm workers at the bottom of the supply chain. With the support of Oxfam America, the organization won an historic collective bargaining agreement with Mt. Olive and the growers association in 2004 that brought about 8,000 guest workers under the protection of a union contract. Prior to that the workers had had few labor rights.
Now, FLOC wants to see the same kinds of benefits—better wages, improved working conditions—extended to migrant tobacco pickers. And the participation of RJ Reynolds, with the tight control it helps to exert on the prices growers can get for their crops, is the key to that plan.
FLOC is employing a number of tactics to achieve its goal—starting with requests to meet with the company. FLOC also secured enough votes at a recent meeting of RJ Reynolds shareholders to keep alive a resolution calling on the company to improve conditions for workers in the field. It has enlisted the support of more than 190 religious leaders around the country to sign a letter to the company's CEO. And, to put some extra pressure on RJ Reynolds, FLOC is planning to launch a country-wide boycott of a product—yet to be decided—owned by company shareholders.
"What's important is fighting the good fight for the rights of people,"" says Velasquez.