North Carolina has one of the lowest percentages of union members in the country. Yet in this non-union bastion, thousands of farm workers, some of the country’s least unionized workers, belong to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. That gives the state a greater percentage of unionized farm workers than almost any other.
The heart of FLOC’s membership here are the 6000 workers brought to North Carolina with H2-A work visas every year, to pick the cucumbers that wind up in the pickle jars sold in supermarkets by the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. Not all farm workers, or FLOC members, are guest workers with H2-A visas, however. In fact, a report last year by Oxfam America, “A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina’s tobacco industry,” estimates that of the 100,000 farm workers in the state, only 9% have H2-A visas. Almost all the rest have no legal immigration status.
Nevertheless, when workers fall under the union contract, FLOC represents them, regardless of whether they have visas or not. Some contract growers employ both H2-A and undocumented labor – the union doesn’t ask. This is the case for every farm worker union in the country. If a union only tried to represent workers with visas, it would have no power. Only a small minority of the workforce would qualify for membership, and in a given workplace, workers would be divided against each other. The ability of a union to unite workers in action in a workplace is the basis of its strength, and its ability to protect rights and win better conditions.
This time FLOC’s adversaries are the world’s largest cigarette manufacturers – Philip Morris, Lorillard Tobacco Company and Reynolds American. None of them actually own land or grow tobacco themselves. They contract with growers and buy what they produce, at a price these manufacturers totally control. Some growers contract for workers through the North Carolina Growers Association, where the union has its contract. Other growers hire workers themselves, usually through labor contractors. The NCGA workers all have H2-A visas, while those working for labor contractors are mostly undocumented. Some growers do both.
“Conditions for tobacco workers are worse than those for farm workers anywhere else in the country,” says Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC”s president. Velasquez says he’s out to organize all workers, regardless of status. “Just because someone’s undocumented doesn’t mean they don’t have rights,” he emphasizes.