Home Restaurant A Contested Election Is Fracturing a Farmworkers’ Union

A Contested Election Is Fracturing a Farmworkers’ Union

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.

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 “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.

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.

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