FLOC’s 11th Constitutional Convention
by Lauren Gill
On October 3rd, 2009, workers for the National Farm Work Ministry, and a couple of us from the Orlando chapter of YAYA, namely Matthew Garcia and myself (Lauren Gill), were granted the opportunity of a lifetime. Due to the generous assistance of the nonprofit organization Oxfam, we were able to attend the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)’s 11th Constitutional Convention, in person, in Toledo, Ohio.
We found out that Ohio is one of the most unionized states in the country, and the city of Toledo boasts a high percentage of unionized workers as well as being Baldemar Velasquez’s place of residence and that, too, of the FLOC headquarters. We truly were in the heart of a great state that understands the power and necessity of worker and union solidarity.
During our first day in Toledo, we got the chance to explore FLOC’s headquarters and sit in on a preparatory meeting with a group of about 30 farm workers from North Carolina. We heard stories of pay undercutting, pesticide exposure, and issues of disingenuous crew leaders in the fields. It would be an introduction to the stories that would follow, and the men we would meet the following day.
The entire constitutional convention was packed into a solid day of activities that left us all both tired and exhilarated by its finale. At 6 am, we awoke to join some of the farm workers for breakfast in the ballroom, which began the theme that would continue throughout the day of getting to know FLOC’s constituents and better understanding what we do within YAYA and who we are helping (and other ways we might in the future)
We met gentlemen from North Carolina, who had risked three days worth of pay from the field, at breakfast. Many were the same age as us, or younger, freshly out of their teenaged years, and some nestled within them. They told us of a love of futbol (soccer), but no time to play it. They explained their dawn-to-dusk schedule of work. We left breakfast to begin setup, handing out FLOC banderas (flags) and greeting the farm workers that were arriving by bus.
The convention began at 9 am, and due to a fantastic group of volunteer translators, it was made accessible to us all via U.N.-like earpieces. It was opened by Bishop Leonard Blair and the convocation was delivered by Pastor Gene Genne. Both gentlemen used Biblical verse to encourage the farm worker’s in sus luchas (their struggles) as well as to comfort them by knowing that they will be rewarded for the work they do. It was a very uplifting way to begin the morning.
With FLOC flags in hand, the American national anthem was sung. Then, with a little coaxing, an a capella version of the Mexican national anthem began, which allowed for the crossing of borders and the melding of cultures – reiterating the importance of not forgetting where you came from, and was surely a welcome familiarity, a piece of home for the farm workers.
Elections were formalized, with Baldemar Velasquez remaining President and Maria Garcia becoming the first female Vice President of FLOC. The directors were also picked and we were introduced to Baldemar Velasquez’s daughter, also an active member of FLOC and newly on the board. The rules, credentials, and FLOC summary were delivered to the audience, and then Jesus “Chuy” Negrete began playing Mexican music. Mr. Negrete has been at every single FLOC convention, bringing musica de Mexico with him every time.
During the meeting, a total of 17 resolutions were democratically voted on by the members of FLOC in attendance. Some of the resolutions related to ideas of comprehensive immigration reform, some individually affected members of FLOC from certain states, like the H2A workers from North Carolina. Other resolutions worked toward assisting the youth in Dudley, North Carolina, the children of farm workers, encouraging education and a more positive environment to grow up in. Additional resolutions allowed for job security, more money allotted to them, the continuation of Ohio’s free clinic, and even a resolution of justice for Santiago Rafael Cruz, a FLOC organizer who was brutally tortured and murdered in Monterrey, Mexico in 2007. The resolutions were all passed and members were encouraged to come up to the microphone and speak.
We heard stories from men whose families had been deported and, in many of those instances, their run-ins with the criminal justice system who would not afford them the information they needed to figure out where their loved ones might be. We heard genuine pleas for reform, from young men explaining that they just wanted to work, and have done nothing wrong in this country, except be without official documentation. A young man discussed the need of education within the farm worker communities, to establish a sense of hope and motivation for the community.
These parts of the convention were some of the most enlightening. It is one thing to be a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform; it is another thing entirely to finally be in a forum where the individual’s whose futures are at stake (and who are often ignored, silenced, forgotten) are given a chance to speak.
There were many speakers to attend the convention as well. Toledo’s Mayor Carty Finkbeiner came to represent on behalf of the city, and welcomed the farm workers and offered words of encouragement, acknowledging FLOC’s beginning in his very city lines. Civil rights activist and church leader Reverend Nelson Johnson was in attendance from Greensboro, North Carolina, survivor of the Greensboro massacre of 1979, and drew comparisons between the struggle for civil rights on behalf of the African American community and those of the Mexican and immigrant community of present day, offering solidarity through shared experience.
Lastly, Fred Azcarate, a representative of the national AFL-CIO spoke to the crowd, instilling union pride, and solidarity, while honoring the unique union-based fight of the farm workers in FLOC.
The convention was peppered with moments of fun as well. As El Corazón de México (the Heart of Mexico), a Mexican dance troupe, performed classical and cultural Mexican dances, there was excitement in the air, and another piece of home delivered to the farm workers who had come so far to support themselves and their families.
The convention culminated in a march on Toledo, walking to a statue of President William McKinley, where county commissioners and President Baldemar Velasquez delivered speeches to the people and the news media. Banners were held, flags raised to the sky, as farm workers, their families, and members of the community marched. “¡Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” People watched from their cars, and gave thumbs up, or honked their horns in support.
The night ended with a banquet back at the convention center, where we were again given the opportunity to sit and eat with farm workers. We met people from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and from all over the country of Mexico. It was a unique experience, breaking down borders at a table of friends, understanding that, at the end of this, we share moral equity, we are all people. And we were in this fight together.
After the banquet, we were invited to a private debrief with Baldemar Velasquez and other key organizers and speakers from the event. With private conversations with him, we became one degree separated from the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez, men he had worked with in his youth. We learned more in-depth information about campaigns and direction, and got to fully round out our experience with the FLOC convention by being in the environment of leadership and membership.
Remembering a banner from a previous convention that hung in the hall, I regarded my Floridian companions, and the farm workers of the north, and their families in Mexico: “North to South – Justice Has No Boundaries!” And it doesn’t, and we will continue to fight.
¡Hasta la Victoria!
Photos courtesy of Matthew Garcia (Orlando YAYA) and Alex Jones (NFWM)