By Coco McCabe
A sense of humor and muscle are what get these comrades through long days in the fields of North Carolina. In the evening, José A. Canales Damian and his five roommates share jokes and a few comforts. Photo: Michael Borum

They were dressed in their traveling best—busloads of workers, some in crisp jeans and tall cowboy hats, others in new shoes and slogan-splashed T-shirts. After months spent topping, suckering, and harvesting shoulder-high tobacco and other produce like sweet potatoes in the sweltering fields of North Carolina, these family men from Mexico were going home, and their anticipation was electrifying.

But in October, 2008, their exodus from the parking lot of the North Carolina Growers Association was significant for more than personal reasons: It marked the final season of a historic labor contract—the first in the nation to provide a host of protections for immigrant workers. It gives them better pay and a voice in the living and working conditions that have long subjected laborers like them to indignities and hazards most working Americans would never tolerate.

Four years after its original signing, that contract was up for renegotiation, and the workers were leaving without knowing that the outcome—still weeks off—would be positive and the contract would be renewed. On the workers' side, the negotiations required a mix of diplomacy, pressure, and a keen understanding of the politics of an industry that both depends on their sweat but is loathe to value it. And that negotiating job fell to Baldemar Velásquez, the founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, a longtime Oxfam America partner and the force behind the birth of this contract.

"The contract sets a precedent," said Velásquez, the son of Mexican farmworkers who himself labored in the fields of Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana all the way through college. "This ground-breaking agreement has allowed dialogue and problem-solving to replace accusations and recriminations—and we appreciate the efforts of the growers' association to set practices that go beyond regulatory standards. It offers an example to everyone else around of how things ought to be done. We want people to have a different experience with Mexicans than their preconceived notions."

Who are the Mexicans who come to tend and harvest the fields that feed us—cheaply and well—while so much of the world is slipping into hunger because of wildly fluctuating food prices? Many of them are guest workers, here temporarily with the permission of the US government to do the jobs that local farmers can find no one else willing to take on. Without them, harvests that stock our supermarkets and help fill the coffers of our corporations would go to waste in the fields, bringing ruin to growers and adding to the global food crisis.

Fathers and sons

The sun was hot as it beat down on the buses waiting in the parking lot of the North Carolina Growers Association headquarters in Vass. Men waited patiently in line to buy a last meal from a truck serving tacos before boarding the buses for the ride back to Mexico—a three-day two-night haul. Their bags bulged, stretched to bursting with goods for their families: new clothes, coveted toys. One man cradled a stuffed horse—too stiff and big to cram into his duffel—as he would the child for whom it is intended.

For Gustavo Arriago Chavez, this was the best part—being homeward bound, bearing gifts. For 16 years he had made the trip from his home in Aguascalientes to the fields near here in central North Carolina. Because of the contract FLOC worked out with the growers' association, he's not only able to keep the recruitment fees that could have cost him $400, but he can earn the prevailing wage set by the US Department of Labor. This year, that was $8.85 an hour—more than double the pay when he first started. With the money he has earned over time here, Arriago has built a small house for his wife and three children in Mexico, an achievement that would have taken him many more years if he hadn't headed north each spring.

Still, the annual trek is not without trade-offs—big ones. This year, Arriago opted for a shorter work season—coming in June instead of April or earlier—because he wanted to have more time with his family. At 36, he has spent nearly half his life laboring on farms in the US. But fear about how long he'll be able to keep it up nags at the back of his mind: field work, especially for tobacco pickers, can take its toll. Nicotine coats the leaves of the tobacco plants and easily soaks through clothing and gloves, sometimes causing a temporary flu-like sickness known as "the green monster." Pesticides on the plants may compound its effect. And it's those pesticides that worry Arriago.

"Nobody knows when they might affect you and you might suffer from an illness," said Arriago, who has neither a pension nor social security to fall back on. His worry is for his family. Who will take care of them if something should happen to him?

Listening carefully to Arriago was a young man with a boyish face and a slight frame. A silver cross hung from his neck. His name was Miguel Gonzalez Zaragoza. At 22, he had just completed his second season in the North Carolina fields—a job he took after having to give up his university studies with just one year to go before earning a degree in accounting. Gonzalez's father died, and his mother and siblings need his help.

"For now, I need to concentrate on supporting my family," he said. With his earnings last year, the first thing he did was buy his mother a washing machine.

"There are not a lot of job opportunities in Mexico," added Gonzalez. And even though the seasonal work in the US takes him away from home for months on end, he's able to earn more than he would in his chosen profession in Mexico. So for the moment, the deal is worth it.

"Now that I come up here, I'm able to go back to Mexico and have some of the luxuries I wasn't able to have," he said. The contract, which is due to expire on Dec. 31, 2008, has played a key role in making the whole arrangement work.

Stability, security

In 2008, about 6,500 guest workers— those who have what is known as an H2-A visa—benefited from the contract signed between FLOC, the North Carolina Growers Association, and its members. And about 600 association growers hired those workers, paying them more than $2 an hour above the federal minimum wage.

But perhaps even more important than the financial boost are the labor rights the contract has helped workers secure, including an effective grievance process that allows them to speak out about work-related problems without fear of being blacklisted and not hired back. Field hands who join the FLOC union— as about 60 percent of the guest workers now have—receive extra benefits, too, such as monetary assistance if they have been injured and are waiting for worker's compensation to kick in and financial help if they have to rush home for serious medical emergencies among family members.

Have conditions for immigrant farmworkers improved since the contract was first signed?

"Definitely," said Eric Jonas, a FLOC field organizer. "A lot of the big improvements come from workers knowing there is a grievance procedure and making workers feel more confident."

In the meantime, solid relationships between field hands and the farmers who employ them seem to be blossoming—an outcome that bodes well for both groups.

"If we have a problem, we can talk to him," said Victor Vargas Mendoza of the farmer who has asked to have him come back each year, giving Vargas a feeling of stability. "He's fair."

And though women are rare among the guest workers contracted through the growers' association, one mother-daughter team had found a welcoming environment in the three years they have come north. Laura Avalos and her mother, Maxina Maldonado, work for a grower who has provided the women, and one other of their family members, with a house for which he pays the rent and the use of a car. And they are grateful for the arrangement—even if it means they are away from home for nine months of the year.

"There's no work in Mexico," said Maldonado. "This is a necessity."

For H2-A farmworkers in North Carolina, the contract has helped to soften that reality, guaranteeing them protection from the injustices—dangerous working conditions, abusive bosses—so many others are forced to accept. Velásquez, FLOC's founder, knows well about those trials: he grew up bound by them.

"From the time I was six years old, I was raised harvesting crops," said Velásquez, who was one of nine children in a migrant family that followed the crops, sometimes even leaving home before the school year had finished. "You see a lot of good farmers, and some bad ones. A young man grows up feeling angry about those things."

But for him, the worst was the foul language heaped on his mother by crude employers. The denigration she endured hurt him deeply as a boy and has informed his activism ever since. His position today? Stand tall and don't be afraid. It's a message he shares wherever he goes, and with Oxfam's help, FLOC is spreading the word as it continues to organize workers across North Carolina and to improve relations with the growers' association.

Organizing—far and wide

Dusk had turned to night by the time Frank Velázquez and a handful of other FLOC organizers pull into a labor camp about a 45-minute drive from their Dudley headquarters. Acres of soybeans stretched along the highway between fields of cotton sprinkled like confetti atop their stiff talks. This was farm country: everything was far apart, and checking in with workers often meant burning a lot of gas.

In the yard among a cluster of cabins, a crowd of men gatheed in the dark and listened as Velázquez talked about the union and what it can do for them. Many had already signed on; others paid close attention to his words.

Inside one of the cabins—crowded with beds and painted swimming pool blue—the men needed no convincing. One of them was Rigoberto Vargas Gayosso, a 25-year-old university graduate who was wrapping up his first season as a tobacco and sweet-potato picker. He planned to become a union member on his return next year.

"It's always good to have something to count on—if someone is coming here alone, by himself," he said.

"It's helped everybody," added Epigmenio Sosa Rivera, a 33-year-old father of three children. "Things are better for everybody who comes up here." The previous year, for instance, he had to return suddenly to Mexico, before the harvesting was compete, after his wife developed complications following a Cesarean section. When he wanted to come back in the spring, the growers' association made it difficult for him, he said, because he hadn't finished the previous contract. But the union stepped up to Sosa's defense—and helped him get his job back.

But down a different road, at a small camp set off by itself in a field far from the farmer's house, the workers seemed hesitant as Velázquez told them about FLOC. A few bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling lit their common room: a concrete floor, metal walls, a row of stoves, and another of fridges made up most of their creature comforts. They listened silently, the exhaustion of the day heavy on their shoulders. When Velázquez finished his pitch and asked if anyone would like to join the union, the men slowly shooke their heads. No.

Outside, the night was clear and a full moon washed the camp in silver light. Velázquez and the other organizers regrouped for a moment, relishing the peace of the evening as they discussed the silence of the workers inside. Was it fear that kept them quiet? Perhaps. But as the organizers climbed into their car and pulled away, they could see through the camp window that their visit was not for nothing: inside, the workers were busy leafing through the red-covered labor contracts Velázquez wisely left behind.

"Our job is to teach workers to speak up and not be silent," FLOC's founder had said earlier that day. "It's the job of an organizer to share that vision of a greater world with a place for everyone."

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