United Farm Workers president Arturo S. Rodriguez turned to Baldemar Velasquez and seemed somewhat awestruck. "Baldemar, what you all accomplished here, I don't even understand it yet," said Rodriguez, who heads the nation's largest farmworker union. "It is very significant."
Rodriguez, 52, was in Raleigh and Durham last week to join with Velasquez, the founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), to celebrate FLOC's September union victory that resulted in a pact signed among FLOC, the N.C. Grower's Association and the Mt. Olive Pickle Company that extends union protections to thousands of workers who harvest Mt. Olive's cucumber crop.
In a press conference at the state AFL-CIO office in Raleigh, Rodriguez, who took over the UFW reigns after the untimely 1993 death of founder Cesar Chavez, said many people "may not appreciate the magnitude of this victory and how historic it is."
Rodriguez said the FLOC agreement will become a model for farmworker union organizers all over the nation. "What was accomplished here really does create a whole new model, a very significant model, that we can utilize not only here in North Carolina but across the country," Rodriguez said. "It's another real significant step in our road to bringing about better working conditions, better living conditions for agricultural workers in the country."
Velasquez said since the FLOC agreement was inked two months ago, more than 1,000 workers have utilized the grievance procedure included in the collective bargaining agreement. Velasquez said workers started filing grievances the day after the agreement was signed. All of the grievances "were successfully resolved," he said. "The longest grievance lasted, I think, two weeks. I believe God's hand is at work here."
FLOC's agreement primarily covers the state's 8,000 H-2A or so-called "guest" workers who come to the United States legally.
"Unfortunately, even though there were laws on the books, many times those [guest] workers were not represented and not protected in the way they should be," Rodriguez said. "It's going to be our challenge to ensure that the agreement is successful, to ensure that everything continues to move forward."
Both union leaders said their efforts are not designed to destroy the viability of the agricultural industry, a charge made by some union critics.
For more than five years, FLOC led a boycott of Mt. Olive products to pressure the company to allow farmworkers to unionize.
"We didn't do this boycott to ruin anybody," Velasquez said. "We want the industry to be successful, because we want to make a living with it."
Said Rodriguez: "We very much believe in working collaboratively with the industry to ensure their viability for the future, because it would be a sad day here in America if we have to outsource all of our agricultural products."
Velasquez and Rodriguez acknowledged that the problems facing Latinos coming to the United States are varied and complex. Most Latino workers, fleeing poverty in their home countries, cross into the United States illegally. Recent free trade agreements have made poverty conditions worsen throughout Latin America, Velasquez said.
A Carnegie Endowment study said a net result of the NAFTA Agreement was the loss of 1.3 million Mexican farms, Velasquez said. NAFTA eliminated border tariffs that kept the Mexican corn crop competitive, he said. "With the elimination of the tariffs at the border, you flood the Mexican market with cheap American corn," he said.
U.S.-produced corn is "highly subsidized, which Mexico's is not, and it's highly mechanized, which Mexico's is not," Velasquez said. "Mexican farmers can't compete with that, and they lose their livelihood. So those 1.3 million farmers have to go somewhere to feed their families. Either they go to the big cities or they go to the United States.
"The issue's really about human suffering and the economic, political decisions that are made that give rise to these issues of oppression and exploitation. Of course there are economic policies that drive the immigration issue, that promote the migration of people."
Velasquez suggested a solution. If free trade agreements are used to integrate the economies of many nations, why not "integrate the labor market as well," he said. "If they want free trade, they ought to have a free labor market as well. Allow people to move freely, to get the legal documents to travel outside of their own country very much like the European Community ... and let the labor market saturate itself."
Velasquez also suggested "hemispheric standards."
"Why not start with a hemispheric minimum wage," he said. "Equalize the minimum wages in Mexico and the United States so there isn't that uncompetitiveness in forcing the employers to switch areas where they can better take advantage of a lower-paid work force."
The problems go beyond forming unions, but that's a good starting point, Rodriguez said.
"You've got to be at the table, and you're not at the table unless you've got money, or votes or power, something like that. And this [union organizing] gives us ability to be able to do that."
Rodriguez also accused Democrats of taking the Latino vote for granted, a factor that likely contributed to George W. Bush's popularity among many Latinos in the last election.
"Well, the Democrats better wake up real soon and stop taking people for granted and really speak to their issues," he said.
With millions of agricultural, service industry and other low-paying jobs available, Rodriguez said immigrant workers will keep coming to the United States.
"It's not going to change, and so as a result, we as Americans have to begin to deal with that reality and determine how we're going to treat people in a fair way."
Velasquez and Rodriguez are both Texas-born U.S. citizens. After years of involvement with the UFW, Rodriguez married Cesar Chavez' daughter Linda Chavez in 1974. Linda Chavez Rodriguez died on Oct. 9, 2000, after a long illness. They have three children.
Velasquez said he was raised a "farmworker kid." Farm work "may not be high up on the list of desired occupations in America, but somebodys got to do the work and somebodys got to give that work dignity and respect," Velasquez said.