A Contested Election Is Fracturing a Farmworkers’ Union | Civil Eats

A Contested Election Is Fracturing a Farmworkers’ Union

Baldemar Velasquez has presided over the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the nation’s second-largest farmworker union, for its entire 55-year history. This year, he faced a challenger in a contested election for the first time. Chaos ensued.

Leticia Zavala (left) gives a speech in an effort to unseat the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's current and only president Baldemar Velasquez (right). (Photo credit: Grey Moran)

Leticia Zavala (left) gives a speech in an effort to unseat the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s current and only president Baldemar Velasquez (right). (Photo credit: Grey Moran)

July 18, 2023 update: The U.S. Secretary of Labor will be supervising a new election for the union’s president and leadership team by September 2024, according to an agreement reached earlier this month.

Daylight was quickly fading by the time a group of five migrant farmworkers, just returning home from harvesting tobacco, boarded a white passenger van. Soon, everyone was either sleeping or softly chatting as the van moved along stretches of dark roads, passing by sweet potatoes and tobacco fields and the occasional traffic light. Two volunteers took shifts driving the 700 miles from Deep Run, North Carolina to Toledo, Ohio.

It was early September and the height of tobacco season, the most demanding time for one of the most demanding jobs, and it was hard for the farmworkers to take time off. Yet by driving overnight and returning the following day, they managed to miss just one day in their usual six-day work week to vote in their union’s election.

It was the first election in the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s (FLOC) 55-year history in which its founder, president, and famed labor activist Baldemar Velasquez, had been challenged. It was also a flashpoint within an ongoing, tense struggle over the union’s leadership, resulting in a recent federal complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

The farmworkers saw the election as an opportunity to steer the union in a new direction. They believe that FLOC, the second largest farmworker union in the U.S., has been failing to represent them, its rank-and-file members, both in its structure and organizing. Even the election itself, which would require most farmworkers to travel more than 1,000 miles in total to attend, is part of the broader pattern, farmworker members said, of sidelining their voices in their own union. As one farmworker, Eli Porras Carmona, said in Spanish, “It ceased to be a union for farmworkers.”

Leticia Zavala, outside of the convention center in Toledo, shortly after she lost the election for president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee to Baldemar Velasquez.

Leticia Zavala, outside of the convention center in Toledo.

The group of farmworkers traveled to Ohio that day to vote for Leticia Zavala—called Lety by farmworkers and union staff—who was a FLOC organizer until September, when she was fired by Velasquez. She became involved in the union as a child farmworker at age 13, later becoming its vice president and lead organizer in North Carolina, fighting to secure its current contract. Her campaign emerged from conversations with farmworkers, largely familiar with her from her visits to their labor camps—shared, employer-provided housing near the farms—to support them.

“We wanted someone to stand up for us. We wanted someone to be in front of us. For what? So that . . . employers would not trample on us,” said one of the farmworkers, who spoke anonymously, citing a fear of retaliation. He had been a union member for over a decade, paying $18–$20 for every week of work in dues. He claims that grievances about contract violations and labor abuse, such as “growers who abuse the workers, don’t give them breaks, or who mistreat them verbally,” are routinely overlooked.

These workers are part of El Futuro Es Nuestro (It’s Our Future), which originated as a campaign and continues as a movement with around 50 active members, the majority of whom are migrant farmworkers. Alongside Zavala, they recommended a slate of migrant farmworkers for the positions of secretary, treasurer, and vice president, running on a platform that included some of the workers’ common demands, such as an enforceable COVID protocol across farms, a retirement plan for those aging out of farm work, and better enforcement of their hard-won contract. They formed a local chapter in North Carolina and voted on farmworkers to represent them in the election, rallying around the idea of reclaiming the union.

“We wanted someone to stand up for us. We wanted someone to be in front of us. For what? So that . . . employers would not trample on us.”

Four months later, the future of the union remains uncertain. Velasquez was re-elected by a wide margin, but Zavala and the El Futuro Es Nuestro movement claim the election was conducted undemocratically and illegally, suppressing both the vote of union members and the right of union members and staff to run for office, in alleged violation of the union’s constitution and federal labor law. They are calling for a new election that is more accessible to the union’s H-2A migrant farmworkers—one of the most rapidly growing and exploited workforces in the United States, prone to labor and housing abuse.

As the first union to represent migrant H-2A farmworkers under a labor agreement, which includes just cause termination, the right to transfer farms, prioritizing returning farmworkers in the recruitment, and a grievance system, FLOC is often seen as a model of what is possible when migrant farmworkers organize—and what many looking to reform the H-2A program continue to fight for on a policy level. Now, many of these migrant workers are organizing for what they see as a more democratic union.

An Ohio Election for Workers Based in North Carolina

FLOC was formed in 1967 in Toledo, Ohio, and remains headquartered there. Yet the vast majority of the union’s 1,500-plus members live in North Carolina, where the union has its only contract with the North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA), the largest employer of H-2A agricultural workers in the U.S. The NGCA sponsors the workers’ visas, mostly from Mexico to North Carolina, where they work for 2–11 months of the year, living in congregate labor camps. The union also has an office in Mexico, representing migrant farmworkers year-round. FLOC is outnumbered in membership only by United Farm Workers (UFW), the oldest farmworker union, founded in 1962.

The opportunity to strengthen the contract—which covers more than 10,000 H-2A farmworkers in North Carolina—motivated Cesar Aguilar to run for vice president on the El Futuro Es Nuestro slate. “There are farmers who are not respecting the contract,” said Aguilar, who spent the fall working on a pine tree farm. North Carolina farmworkers under contract, like Aguilar, pay 2.5 percent of their weekly wages to receive the union’s backing.

The fact that the election is held in Toledo, Ohio—where there are no farmworkers under the union contract—is indicative, El Futuro Es Nuestro campaigners argue, of the union’s failure to represent its rank-and-file members. In the spring, they pushed for the election to be held in North Carolina, gathering signatures from more than 300 farmworkers, arguing that that this would critically expand voting access to the union’s membership, but the petition was dismissed by FLOC’s executive leadership. Velasquez, responsible for the preliminary review of the petition, questioned the “authenticity and legitimacy of the signatures,” in an e-mail to FLOC’s former vice president, shared with Civil Eats.

El Futuro Es Nuestro campaigners argue that the election being held in Toledo, Ohio—where there are no farmworkers under the union contract—is indicative of FLOC’s failure to represent its rank-and-file members.

“By virtue of holding the convention in Ohio, and not allowing any members to participate virtually, Baldemar effectively disenfranchised almost the entire union membership in North Carolina,” said Aaron Jacobson, a farmworker advocate and former FLOC organizer. He adds that H-2A workers can face repercussions for missing a workday, if their employer doesn’t approve, and most don’t have cars. “This is a paragon of an unjust election,” he said.

FLOC provided chartered travel to farmworkers able to attend the entirety of the two-day convention, but the union didn’t provide transportation to farmworkers, like those in the van, who could only miss one day of work. In an e-mail to Civil Eats, Velasquez said that providing transportation on both days would pose a “tremendous and inordinate cost” to the union, while noting that “full democratic participation” requires attending two days.

The farmworkers who traveled overnight in the van were able to circumvent this geographic barrier—but just barely, with a bit of luck. They arrived at the convention center minutes before registration was set to close at 9 a.m. They were the last group of delegates to arrive, quickly filing into the back seats of the cavernous hall. In the front rows, closer to the stage where Velasquez sat, there were voting union members who traveled a much shorter distance, including Velasquez’s sisters and their children, and former Toledo mayor Carty Finkbeiner.

Baldemar Velasquez, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's founder and president since 1967.

Baldemar Velasquez, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s founder and president since 1967.

According to the certified election results, Velasquez received 135 votes and Zavala received just 21. In a similar landslide, Velasquez’s daughter, Christiana Wagner, was elected as secretary treasurer. And Cruz Diaz Montalvo, who is a migrant H-2A farmworker, was appointed as the vice president.

“This was not a surprise,” said Lori Fernald Khamala, a farmworker advocate and organizer with El Futuro Es Nuestro, shortly after the results were announced. “We knew [Zavala wouldn’t have the votes] from the moment that the convention was going to be set in Toledo, instead of North Carolina or instead of finding creative and alternative ways for more people to participate.”

Eli Porras Carmona, a member of El Futuro Es Nuestro, and the union, was among the many farmworkers who wanted to vote but were unable to attend the election.

“Everybody voted besides farmworkers,” said Carmona in Spanish. “We’re angry. We’re insulted because this did not even come close to what the union is about, [it] says in its acronym that it is dedicated to the workers: it is the Farm Labor [Organizing] Committee.”

Several farmworkers interviewed did not want to use their names, citing a fear of retaliation because of Velasquez’s close relationship with growers, potentially impacting farmworkers’ ability to return the following year.

A few days after the election, Leticia Zavala filed a federal complaint with the DOL, seeking a re-run of the election claiming that it violated the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959, the federal law regulating labor unions. The complaint alleges that Velasquez “sought and gained an undemocratic advantage for his supporters and campaign by holding an in-person election in Ohio.” The DOL complaint was initially denied on a technicality; Zavala was first required to exhaust FLOC’s internal channels, before filing a federal complaint, prompting her to file an internal grievance in late September. In response to the grievance, an internal committee determined in January that Velasquez committed no violations of the union’s constitution. Zavala has since filed another complaint with the DOL.

Zavala and other former FLOC staff members and union farmworkers see this as an effort to gain an “undemocratic advantage” in the election, allegedly, as part of a broader pattern of abuse of power, retaliation, and intimidation by Velasquez, which they say escalated as El Futuro Es Nuestro campaign gained steam. In the months leading up to the election and shortly after, El Futuro Es Nuestro members say Velasquez fired union employees affiliated with the campaign, restricted staff members’ job duties and communication with farmworkers, and accused Zavala and another campaigner of “insubordination” in warnings and termination letters.

The El Futuro Es Nuestro slate—Roberto Ceballos (left), Cesar Aguilar (center) and Leticia Zavala (right)—gather in Zavala's home the day after the election.

The El Futuro Es Nuestro slate—Roberto Ceballos (left), Cesar Aguilar (center) and Leticia Zavala (right)—gather in Zavala’s home the day after the election.

In a recent e-mail, Velasquez said, “FLOC denies all allegations of wrongdoing. The election process was held in an open and democratic manner in compliance with the LMRDA, FLOC’s Constitution, and democratic principles.” He claimed that he “respected the right of Ms. Zavala and any other FLOC member in good standing to run for FLOC office.”

Velasquez claimed that “all members were given equal opportunity” to attend the election. “I wanted everybody to come [to the election],” he said in an interview, adding that he reached out to some members who supported Zavala to offer them transportation to the election.

A Turning Point Within FLOC

In past conventions, held every four years, Velasquez, 75, has been the assumed candidate, re-elected by a show of hands. In 1989, the union’s founder received a MacArthur Fellowship for leading the union through a series of labor victories—from a the historic 560-mile march joined by Cesar Chavez to draw attention to a boycott of Campbell’s Soup in 1983 to launching a five-year boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle in 1999—consistently resulting in higher wages and safer conditions for migrant farmworkers. In an interview, Velasquez described his strategy as targeting “pressure points in distribution,” by always tying direct action to economic demands. So far, this strategy hasn’t failed, he said. “As long we didn’t give up, we eventually got something.”

Zavala envisioned her campaign as honoring this legacy. She formally launched her campaign in March of 2022, on the anniversary of the Mt. Olive Pickles Boycott. In April of 2021, she had written an e-mailed letter to Velasquez asking for his blessing to run. “I write this letter with much love and appreciation,” she began. “I have known you since I was a child. I remember sitting in the grass in the middle of a labor camp and experiencing the excitement associated with Baldemar Velasquez’s arrival.” She described herself as his “number one prodigy,” before asking if they could meet to discuss the union’s future and her vision.

But this letter wasn’t received as she hoped it would be. “That changed everything,” said Zavala. A few days later, she claimed that Velasquez called her to ask that she not run for president. She recalled telling him that she doesn’t need to run, but that the union needs a plan for its future in in North Carolina and asked again to meet. They never met in person. This marked a turning point where the divisions within the union became irreconcilable. Soon after, she claims, Velasquez retaliated against her, severely limiting any job duties that involved contact with farmworkers and other staff.

“He did things that were very intimidating,” Zavala told Civil Eats. “I wasn’t allowed to answer the office phone. If I answered my FLOC cell phone, I could only say, ‘I’m not responsible for this area anymore.’ So, he removed me from any contact with members.” Zavala also claims that she was removed from staff-wide communications and her role supervising the two other North Carolina organizers, which she considers to be a retaliatory demotion.

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Justin Flores, FLOC’s former vice president who also directed the Campaign for Migrant Worker Justice, said Velasquez began “making moves to sideline [Zavala]” after she sent the letter, prompting “many of us on the inside of the membership [to] feel like we needed to take a side in this fight.” Flores sided with Zavala. “She is a very democratic person,” he said. “This is her life. She is always meeting with farmworkers.” Soon after, Flores says he was also excluded from staff-wide communications.

In an in-person interview with Civil Eats, Velasquez admitted that he limited Zavala’s job responsibilities but claimed that he was acting within his authority as her employer. “She whined and complained and said I was retaliating against her for running for president,” he said, adding that she overstepped her assigned duties. “That’s when I started disciplining Leticia. She wouldn’t do what I asked her to do. I’m the employer,” he said. In later e-mailed communication, Velasquez said, “No candidates, employees, or members were retaliated or discriminated against in any way.”

As their relationship deteriorated, Velasquez sent a series of disciplinary warnings to Zavala, accusing her of “insubordination” and “subterfuge with the intention of gaining position or power.” The first warning came in August of 2021, in which Velasquez asks her to “halt” a lengthy list of behaviors, including “your arrogant, sarcastic, belligerent behavior towards me in staff meetings” and “presenting me in a negative light with the membership.” Zavala said this had been the first warning she’d received since she began work at FLOC in 2001.

Justin Flores, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's former vice president, wearing a hat in support of El Futuro Es Nuestro.

Justin Flores, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s former vice president, wearing a hat in support of El Futuro Es Nuestro.

This dynamic escalated again in March 2022, when Velasquez fired two union organizers, in Kentucky and Mexico, less than a week after Zavala launched her campaign. A total of six employees of the union and the closely affiliated Campaign for Migrant Worker Justice were terminated over the next few months. All of the union’s lead North Carolina organizers—Leticia Zavala, Justin Flores, and Maria Mejia—were fired explicitly for supporting a change in union leadership, according to their termination letters.

Former employees see their termination as an act of retaliation, resulting from their affiliation or involvement with the El Futuro Es Nuestro campaign.

“This came with no advance notice or understandable justification,” wrote FLOC’s Kentucky field organizer Stephen Bartlett, in an e-mail to Velasquez, a day after his firing. “The only possible explanation I could imagine for this sudden dismissal was that these dismissals were a reaction to the campaign for President of FLOC launched by Leticia Zavala and other FLOC members sharing her slate, just announced this past Thursday.”

A month later, Justin Flores was fired for his “regular and ongoing open support for the candidacy of Leticia Zavala,” from his role as executive director of the Campaign for Migrant Worker Justice (CMWJ), a position partially funded by FLOC. Flores was fired by a vote of the CMWJ board chaired by Velasquez, who recused himself from the vote, according to the termination letter. The board also includes Velasquez’s brother, Rick Velasquez, and son-in-law John Curry.

The North Carolina Department of Commerce determined that Flores wasn’t fired for a reason relating to his work performance. Instead, the agency found that he was “discharged because he advocated for the election of a new union president,” in a letter accepting his appeal to receive unemployment benefits. The agency concluded that Flores “placed the interests of the farm labor movement and his employer above any personal loyalty to his union president,” which is within his rights.

A few days after September’s election, Zavala was fired by an e-mailed letter. As the first reason given, Velasquez wrote, “You ran for president on the El Futuro Es Nuestro slate in direct opposition to me.” His letter quotes a Facebook post of Zavala’s as evidence of what he perceived to be her continued opposition to his presidency: “Victories only count without cheating, defeats only exist for those who give up, and so there is no defeat yet. The force came to Ohio from here. Everything unmasks sooner than later. Remember if you see something wrong, record and let us know!!! The future is ours!” she wrote.

Another North Carolina FLOC organizer, Maria Mejia, was fired on the same day for being “an open and avid supporter of and campaigner for the El Futuro Es Nuestro slate,” among other reasons, in her termination letter. As Velasquez wrote, “Simply put, I can no longer trust you or count on loyalty from you to implement my policy vision for FLOC.” He also accused Mejia of being “guilty of insubordination.” The termination didn’t come as a surprise to Mejia, who said at the election that it was likely her last day. Prior to this, she claims he restricted her job duties, requiring his approval for all labor camp visits and removing her from staff-wide calls and e-mails.

Zavala’s firing didn’t just mark the end of a professional relationship, but also the presumed end of a friendship with Velasquez. He had become an important member of her familial life too—he officiated her marriage and gave her child his first bath. “I love Baldemar,” Zavala told me, the day after the election, letting out a sad laugh. “I feel like he loves me.”

A Critical Moment for Farm Labor Organizing

The future of FLOC is deeply tied with the future of migrant farmworkers. There is only a small handful of farmworker unions in the U.S.; the number of temporary farmworkers recruited under the H-2A program has more than tripled since 2010. Yet this rapid expansion has not been accompanied with reforms to what many see as the program’s longstanding failure to protect migrant farmworkers from abuse, including many cases of human trafficking. As it stands, farmworker unions are among the few critical avenues that all farmworkers—exempt from key federal labor laws, even the right to collective bargaining—have to build and defend their rights to safe work conditions.

“It’s a very interesting, complicated moment in both immigration history and farm labor history that we’re living through right now,” said Matthew Garcia, a professor at Dartmouth whose scholarly research focuses on farmworker unions and labor.

Historically, FLOC has embraced a strategy similar to UFW, placing economic pressure on growers to bring them to the table. However, Garcia distinguishes FLOC from UFW for its early embrace of the H-2A program.

“One of the Achilles heels for the United Farm Workers was the failure to see what Velasquez saw: that you could organize workers, no matter what their status was,” said Garcia, whose book documents the rise and fall of UFW. “It’s a visionary legacy that comes out of the farmworker movement and takes a different course than Cesar Chavez and UFW.” (Historically, UFW actively organized against the importation of undocumented workers, believing they took the jobs of the farmworkers within the union.)

Zavala shares this recognition of Velasquez’s legacy. “I continue to see his vision as one of the most powerful and real visions in organizing,” she said. The fact that FLOC was able to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with Campbell’s Soup, Vlasic [Pickles], and Dean’s, [is] really, really powerful. That’s his legacy.”

“One of the Achilles heels for the United Farm Workers was the failure to see what Velasquez saw: that you could organize workers, no matter what their status was. It’s a visionary legacy that comes out of the farmworker movement and takes a different course than Cesar Chavez and UFW.”

However, Zavala said she believes his failure as a leader comes from the “danger in heroism,” and the fact that he is often singularly lauded for the collective accomplishments of the union, a legacy that can overshadow the workers who also built the union.

The risk of heroism is an old thorn within farmworker movements. “A lot of these farmworker leaders—and they were virtually all men—were inspirational characters. But they overstay their welcome,” said Garcia. “There is a point at which a leader has to facilitate their successor, and the fact that [Velasquez] is 75, the fact that he has let [his tenure] go on for five decades—that’s a real problem.”

He points to Chavez, who while hailed as a visionary organizer, has long overshadowed his UFW co-founders Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong in the public eye and presided over UFW until his death in 1993. Garcia adds that Chavez often maintained authority through undemocratic tactics, including “purges” of staff members and squashing rank-and-file workers from organizing.

“This is where Velasquez should have learned from UFW.” said Garcia. “He runs the risk of destroying that legacy by repeating one of Chavez’s mistakes, which is to thwart democracy.”

Garcia believes that a federal investigation is merited. “I understand that he wants to control the destiny of the baby that he created, but the way in which he maneuvered this convention and election certainly should be ripe for an evaluation by the LMRDA and a questioning of whether this is a legitimate election.”

The Strain of the Pandemic

The tumultuous period leading up to the election—marked by the string of staff firings, the restricting of job responsibilities and contact with farmworkers, and warnings—began shortly after Zavala, Flores, and Mejia filed a petition to Velasquez in May of 2021, complaining of unfair working conditions—including being overworked and delayed payments—and asking for a revised vision for the union’s future.

Maria Mejia, a union organizer fired for supporting a change in union leadership, outside of the convention center in Toledo, Ohio.

Maria Mejia, a union organizer fired for supporting a change in union leadership, outside of the convention center in Toledo, Ohio.

The petition wasn’t only prompted by internal strife, but also the growing emotional strain and exhaustion from trying to meet the needs of farmworkers during the early days of the pandemic. “It was very emotional and difficult and so that affected our well-being. That’s why we started complaining,” said Zavala. As the coronavirus devastated farmworkers across North Carolina, Zavala and Mejia were alone tasked with providing outreach to 700 farms.

“Even if we wanted to [reach every farm], it was impossible. We were working seven days a week,” said Zavala. “There were outbreaks all over the place.”

Zavala said that FLOC staff repeatedly asked for a meeting with Velasquez to discuss the union’s COVID protocol. “We kept asking for a meeting [with Velasquez],” she recalls. Zavala and other staff wanted a standard protocol—agreed upon with the NCGA—that could be enforceable across farms, but claims Velasquez pushed back against idea, favoring leaving practices up to each grower.

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As the pandemic deepened, more farmworkers began expressing frustrations with the union and thinking of resigning, said Zavala. The campaign emerged out of these conversations with farmworkers, eventually coalesced in Zavala’s decision to run for president, with a focus on stronger health and safety protections for farmworkers.

“During the pandemic, [Velasquez] never showed up,” said one union farmworker, who is a member of El Futuro Es Nuestro. He especially wanted the union to support the farmworkers’ families, separated from their loved ones at a critical time, such as by reaching out in wake of a member’s death. “All of us that come here, leave a family,” he said in Spanish.

Velasquez denied that the union was ineffective at responding to grievances, claiming that it “processed over 1,100 grievances, recruitment requests, health and safety issues, and miscellaneous items” over the 2022 season.

Voter Disenfranchisement or a ‘Sacrifice’?

At the election back in September, attendees celebrated Velasquez’s legacy. A pamphlet distributed to all attendees included a message from the town’s mayor, Wade Kapszukiewicz, welcoming union members and praising Velasquez as “an international figure and leader of the farmworker and immigrants’ rights movements.” Marcy Kaptur, a Democratic representative from Ohio who spoke in Velasquez’s campaign launch video, gave a speech at the convention. She referred to Velasquez as her “dear friend,” recalling “when Baldemar and I were much younger, he got all of us locally involved here in boycotting grapes from the West Coast.”

It’s this illustrious past that Velasquez recalls when asked about farmworker representation and disenfranchisement at the election. He views the distance the farmworkers traveled that week as a sacrifice, comparable to those that he has made when younger.

In an interview shortly after the election results were announced, he put it this way: “The strength of this union, being the only [major] union outside of the West Coast, is born through sacrifice.”

A sign reading

He likens the distance to FLOC’s famous 1983 Campbell’s Soup march, which lasted for 36 days. “We marched from Toledo, Ohio to Camden, New Jersey—600 miles. I marched with my children. Christiana, Secretary Treasurer, she was a four-year-old and did the entire 600 miles,” Velasquez said. “We did all these sacrifices and people are whining and complaining, saying ‘Oh, let’s have it in North Carolina because its more convenient.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

There is no independent tally of how many active farmworkers voted in the election. The number remains contested. In an e-mail to staff members of FLOC, Velasquez shared a tally to use in “countering the false narrative” that his vote was not won by farmworkers. Out of the of 197 delegates, the tally counted a total of 101 active farmworkers, including 83 from North Carolina and 18 from Virginia, who traveled on two buses and the van to the election. But Flores noted that the number of active farmworkers under a union contract, which only covers North Carolina H-2A workers, is about 20 people. He said the rest of the people counted in Velasquez’s tally were seasonal farmworkers, who pay $30 per year for an “associate membership.”

“So, this means that only about 20 farmworkers who work under union contract and whose lives are affected on a daily basis by the FLOC leadership voted for the FLOC leadership,” said Flores. “All of the other people only paid $30 per year and their lives do not depend on the union to any real extent.”

Even under Velasquez’s tally, about half of the people to vote in the election were not active farmworkers. The “associate membership” option was designed to enable former farmworkers to continue to have a voice, though there isn’t a set criteria for this category; it includes seasonal farmworkers and “certain non-farmworkers who have demonstrated their support” of FLOC, according to the union’s constitution. “I think it was done for good reasons, but it’s an exploitable thing,” said Flores. He pointed to the fact that many of Velasquez’s family members voted as associate members.

In an interview, Velasquez confirmed that about 20 of his family members voted in the election. When asked if that is fair, given the allegedly comparable number of farmworkers under union contract who voted, he said: “If it wasn’t for these 20 family members, those other 20 [farmworkers] wouldn’t have an agreement. They wouldn’t be here.” said Velasquez. “They would be nothing.”

However, some of the family members are new to the union. For instance, Andrew Healy, Velasquez’s nephew who lives in Ohio and is not a farmworker, told Civil Eats he joined the union as an associate member in early 2022. “I just wanted to support him and his ideas for FLOC. I’m behind him, with whatever he says,” he said in an interview.

Another point of dispute is how to count the votes of the farmworkers who did attend the election. El Futuro Es Nuestro maintains that most farmworkers under the union’s contract came as delegates, elected by other chapter members to represent them, and should therefore be counted as 20 votes each under FLOC’s constitution. If just five delegates voted for Zavala, representing 100 votes under this calculation, it would tip the election in her favor.

However, Velasquez does not recognize the new chapter in North Carolina as legitimate, contending in an e-mail to Civil Eats that “no members outside their closed circle were notified of the meeting, including the FLOC executive board.” Similarly, FLOC’s grievance committee decided that the formation of a North Carolina local chapter, though outlined in the union’s constitution, was “inherently undemocratic and inappropriate.”

El Futuro Es Nuestro’s Next Steps

As the election came to a close, Zavala and the campaign members gathered outside of the convention center in Toledo. Although she had just lost, Zavala appeared in high spirits. She was wearing a billowing olive-green dress, her long hair pulled back in a headband, and beaming at the farmworkers who surround her in a loose circle.

“Today I feel a sense of pride, truly,” she told the team. “Today is the day I feel the greatest pride. The right thing is right, right? You came here to represent those who could not be here, and you did it in a perfect way.”

The farmworkers and Zavala soon left the convention to drive through the night, returning to North Carolina by the soft light of early morning.

The workers in the campaign have continued meeting weekly since the election, functioning like a nonprofit with the Southern Vision Alliance as the fiscal sponsor. They are planning a gathering in Mexico in February to have “time to really plan and strategize, and talk and train ourselves,” said Zavala. If a re-vote isn’t possible, they are weighing the possibility of forming their own union.

“We need a group that is going to represent the farmworkers of North Carolina,” said Lori Fernald Khamala. “Workers are taking leadership. They’re speaking out. Hopefully, we’ll find ways to continue to lift up those voices.”

In a sense, the campaign demonstrates what Velasquez recognized long ago, what made FLOC stand out among unions: that even the most exploited migrant farmworkers can organize and leverage their power in numbers.

 

A Spanish language version of this story will appear in Enlace Latino NC on February 7, 2023.

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. Read more >

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  1. Susan Alan
    Thank you Grey for this excellent article and for making it possible for farmworkers to be heard more widely.
  2. This is a fine piece if reporting! I urge you to write a report on the about the Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the division among farmworkers organizations over whether it was worth supporting.

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Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)

Across Farm Country, Fertilizer Pollution Impacts Not Just Health, but Water Costs, Too

An Illinois farmer fertilizes a field before planting. (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)