Eli Porras Carmona had been coming to work planting and harvesting sweet potatoes in North Carolina for eight years when he got a call from Mexico. His wife needed emergency surgery and he had to return home.
Carmona works under the H-2A program, where thousands of guestworkers are granted temporary permits to work on farms in the US for up to 10 months per year.
Many return year after year -- and since guestworkers are tied to one employer, it's risky to speak out on the job. The employer can easily send you home, or not call you back the next season.
But unlike most guestworkers, many in North Carolina have a say in their working conditions and seniority rights because they belong to a union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
Carmona's employer assured him he could come back the following year. When the time came, however, he was told his name was not on the list.
A friend advised him to call FLOC, and the union helped Carmona file a grievance and negotiate with his employer. Three weeks later, his name was back on the list. "It's meant the wellbeing of my family," says Carmona. "Thanks to the union, I am able to work."
Pressure From the Top
Farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and from labor laws in most states, including in North Carolina. So how does FLOC find the leverage to resolve grievances and negotiate contracts with growers, especially when most of its members are immigrant guestworkers?
Through a combination of member organizing and corporate campaigning FLOC has pressured companies at the top of the supply chain, which have brand names you might recognize from the supermarket, to require their suppliers, the growers who run individual farms, to recognize the union.
FLOC, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, had an early win with Campbell's Soup. A 600-mile march and boycott pushed Campbell's to recognize union elections and an independent labor relations board. In 1986 FLOC won a contract that covers Campbell's and its growers associations, representing Ohio and Michigan tomato and pickle farms.
Then in 2003, FLOC won a collective agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association after a six-year campaign targeting its biggest brand, Mt. Olive Pickles. The contract covers workers who plant and harvest cucumbers, sweet potatoes, tobacco, Christmas trees, and a variety of other crops.
Rights in the Field
Since the agreement covers the majority of H-2A workers in North Carolina, 10,000 guestworkers like Carmona have the protection of a union contract, guaranteeing them the right to appeal unjust warnings and firings, protection against retaliation, and an employee bid system based on seniority that determines who gets to return to work the following year.
It also provides family leave allowing workers to go home in an emergency -- one of the protections that helped Carmona get his job back.
About 20 percent of the guestworkers covered under the agreement have joined the union. Carmona himself wasn't a dues-paying member when he contacted FLOC, but the union offers its representation to any worker who asks. The experience convinced him to sign up and help recruit others.
In 2016, FLOC resolved over 500 grievances, affecting at least 2,000 workers. The most common grievances dealt with wage theft or the bid system.
To teach members their rights and how to enforce the contract, each summer FLOC holds regional trainings across North Carolina, where staffers explain how to talk to co-workers about their rights and members practice in role-plays.
Abel Cruz Cabrera has been working in North Carolina for nine years, harvesting cucumbers, tobacco, and tomatoes. He acts as an informal steward in his workplace. "I give my co-workers an orientation to what I've learned from the union," he says. "I give them an idea of how they can defend themselves, how to act, and what the tools are.
"As workers we have to be more united. I can't say, 'I'm unionized, and you're not, so I won't share information.' No, I have to speak up and never stay quiet."
Cabrera was able to join the H-2A program through his father, Albino Cruz Bueno, who's been a member of FLOC since he started working in North Carolina in 2004.
Nonmembers are often nervous about speaking up, says Bueno, but "I tell them they don't need to be afraid, and we have to speak up to defend our rights." He's been part of union fights that won access to drinking water and housing repairs. Guestworkers live in company-provided housing, where poor conditions are a chronic problem.
This year FLOC negotiated a new three-year contract with the North Carolina growers. Bueno and Carmona were on the bargaining team. "It was difficult, but thanks to the union we had the courage to speak and participate," Bueno says.
Meet Up Back Home
With workers spread out across rural areas, the biggest challenge of union meetings is often just getting members there. FLOC relies on volunteers to pick up members who work long hours and often don't have their own transportation in and out of camps.
That's why FLOC also prioritizes outreach and organizing in Mexico, where members are based for at least two winter months of the year, and often longer. A union organizer based in Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León, Mexico, meets with members in their homes and organizes membership meetings.
Sixty members gathered in Monterrey March 18-19 for a leadership training and planning meeting. It was Cabrera's fifth time there.
"It's a chance to share our opinions, the problems that are happening where we work, and to exchange lots of ideas," he says. "Most important, we learn how to be organized on every farm, in every workplace."
Inch by Inch
Workers discussed resolutions for FLOC's upcoming convention. "We talk about what's going in each of our workplaces, what is not good," says Cabrera. "And we decide what we want to address and fight for in North Carolina."
Carmona came prepared with several proposals, including how to address problems with the three-day bus ride workers have to take from Mexico to North Carolina. "Some of the buses have deplorable conditions," he says. "The seats sometimes are broken, the air conditioning doesn't work, and the bathroom smells terrible after the second day."
Cabrera has seen the union win important changes through a combination of contract negotiations, lawsuits, and grievances. "Before, we had to work half the season before we got reimbursed for our travel costs from Mexico," he says. "But through the union, we fought and that's no longer the case. Now as soon as we arrive we get our reimbursement, and the reality is we really need that money."
Between April and June most workers will start arriving in the US, where the new government has many apprehensive. "We feel scared about the racism," says Carmona. "It's only a few, not the majority, but we feel nervous about the people we will encounter in the street.
"We simply come to the United States to work, for the sake of our families," he adds. "It is never our intention to take away work from anybody."
Quotes in this article have been translated from Spanish.
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