The Farm Labor Organizing Committee won a collective-bargaining deal covering workers on tomato farms in Ohio in 1983, after an eight-year campaign and boycott.
An organization defending the rights of thousands of farmworkers in Ohio and other states is creating its road map for the future.
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee recently held its 14th Quadrennial Convention in Northwest Ohio.
Baldemar Velasquez, president of the committee, explained one major challenge is farmworkers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act because they are not defined as employees. Some experts suggest Congress wanted to protect the family farmer from the effects of collective bargaining in the 1938 law.
But Velasquez argued it was actually to appease segregationists.
"President Roosevelt needed the Southern Dixiecrats to vote in favor of the law and their condition was (to) keep agricultural workers out because most agricultural workers were Black, and they didn't want Black people to have the same rights as white people," Velasquez asserted. "We've been living with that racist legacy ever since."
Velasquez noted while Black laborers were the group most impacted at the time, now most farm laborers are Mexican Americans and Mexicans. While there are no federal protections, 10 states — not including Ohio — allow farmworkers to collectively bargain for employment conditions.
Union campaigns making headlines recently, such as Starbucks and Amazon, have a legal framework for organizing. Velasquez said the committee has the daunting task of creating independent contracts with manufacturers through private agreements.
He explained they are currently campaigning with the RJ Reynolds tobacco company with the understanding most of its farming suppliers are very diversified and grow a variety of crops.
"If we get a concrete agreement with the tobacco manufacturer that'll spill over into other companies that farmers supply, like the Mount Olive Pickle Co.," Velasquez stressed. "It might take us into the realms of dealing with the Walmarts and other major retailers."
Velasquez contended competition from other countries marginalizes the people at the bottom of the food-supply chain. He added if protections are not in place for the men and women who harvest fruits, vegetables and other crops, the future of the nation's food supply is in jeopardy.