Farm Labor Organizing Committee staff member Luis Ruiz and Catherine Crowe speak with agricultural laborors at the Lancaster Farm near Wilson last week.
Drew C. Wilson | Times
Catherine Crowe, with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, listens.
Drew C. Wilson | Times
By Drew C. Wilson
Times Staff Writer
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee is stepping up a campaign for agricultural workers’ rights in Wilson County.
Last week, agricultural workers gathered around for an evening meeting at a Lancaster Farm housing facility to listen to organizers Catherine Crowe and Luis Ruiz explain the purpose of the workers advocacy group.
“Our focus is justice for farm workers as well as for growers and making sure that agriculture is sustainable for every party involved,” Crowe said. “That means the farm workers have a job and the growers are able to have enough economic security top stay in the business and to employee those farm workers.”
“We had two workers to sign up to be new members, which was exciting,” Crowe said. “We already had 17 members at that camp, so most of the people that we chatted with were already members.”
The group was founded 50 years ago by Texas farm worker Baldemar Velasquez. The group has been active in North Carolina since the late 1990s.
Members organized a five-year boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Co. that resulted in the development of a contract with the North Carolina Growers Association.
“The growers association is the biggest recruiter of H-2A workers coming from Mexico on a temporary agricultural visa to work in the U.S. for the agricultural season,” Crowe said. “They recruit a little over 10,000 workers a year through that program.”
According to Crowe, farm workers are currently excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which means they don’t have freedom of association or collective bargaining rights.
“So it is harder for workers to have protection on the job,” Crowe said. “We want farm workers to have those rights like most workers.”
Workers are scared to speak out about abuses on the job because they may face loss of a job.
“What we’ve negotiated as a union with the growers association is job security and a grievance mechanism to handle any issues in a quick and just way for all parties involved, including the growers,” Crowe said. “We are hoping to expand this contract to all farm workers, migrant workers, H-2A workers and other farm contract workers so that all workers are protected.”
This contract covers H-2A workers and a lot of those workers are based in Wilson and others across the state who are working in tobacco, sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables.
Another focus of the group is trying to encourage tobacco companies to pay higher prices for tobacco.
“What we want is for tobacco companies to pay more money to the growers so its more sustainable to the growers and then they can pay more to the workers,” Crowe said. “We want these tobacco companies that make millions and millions of dollars and each year see really high profits to put more money into the supply chains and maybe offset the cost of the H-2A program.”
According to Crowe, Reynolds American, one of the giants of the tobacco industry, is in the process of being sold to British American Tobacco.
“That will make them the biggest tobacco company in the world,” Crowe said. “They are still going to be buying a lot of tobacco from North Carolina, especially eastern North Carolina.”
Right now, FLOC is actually at the table with Reynolds and British American Tobacco talking about solutions to the low prices being paid to tobacco growers.
“The price of tobacco hasn’t gone up for many years, but growers have higher costs at this point because the wage rate for farm workers has gone up, specifically if you are H-2A, but if you are not making more from the companies you sell to, it becomes increasingly harder to pay your workers what the law states that your should,” Crowe said. “We have seen that there are poverty wages for workers in agriculture.”
H-2A workers currently earn $11.27 per hour.
“The sustainability and the job security of the workers we represent is directly connected to the sustainability and economic security of the growers who employ them, so if the growers find that it is no longer economically feasible for them to grow, it means that our members are out of a job,” Crowe said.
At last week’s meeting, Crowe explained the basic parts of the contract that we have with the grower’s association, including their rights to a just cause termination. One of those is pay, so $11.27 is the hourly rate for this year, so workers should be getting a check stub with all the information.
“Another benefit that is listed on the flier is that they can request to change growers at the end of the season if they don’t want to return to the same grower, they are not obligated or forced to return to that grower,” Crowe said.
Crowe explained rights to worker’s compensation.
“If a worker is injured on the job, a grower already has worker’s comp insurance so it will cover those workers if it is work-related of course,” Crowe said. “Making sure that everybody knows that if you are injured on the job the best thing that you can do is to seek medical attention and let the grower know and get that treated as quickly as possible.”
To contact Crowe or Ruiz, call 919-731-4433 or 919-330-7804 or reach out by email to email@example.com. Interested workers can find out more about the organization by going online to www.floc.com/wordpress
“We have a lot of members in Wilson, so maybe once every couple of weeks we will be in the Wilson area,” Crowe said.