Is it true that Baldemar Velásquez led his first labor strike when he was 12?
He smiled as he recalled the story. Born in Texas in 1947, by the age of 12 Velasquez lived in Ohio with his family, picking crops in the summer and working at a cannery in the winter. One day, he and his family were working a tomato field. “I was trying to be the best picker in the crew. And I was picking, like, 130 hampers a day— that’s a 33 pound basket of tomatoes. And we’re getting paid ten cents a basket,” Velásquez said.
He noticed that the best picker had an advantage: His rows were right next to the loading lane. Everyone else had to carry their baskets all the way over there. Baldemar realized he was being paid for picking, not carrying. He proceeded to pick tomatoes furiously, but left the baskets where they were. Afterward, he was ordered to haul the baskets to the truck.
“And I told him, ‘I don’t work for free. You pay me by the hour, and I’ll be glad to haul them over there.’ And then he fired the whole family. That was my first labor action.
“So on the way home, my dad looks in the back mirror and says, ‘Now what did you learn from that?’ And I said, because I was thinking about it, I said, ‘Well, next time, if we all do it, they can’t fire all of us.’”
That spirit of standing together and fighting for a common good has become the backbone of Baldemar Velásquez’s history as a labor leader. Since 1967, Velásquez has served as co-founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), representing farm workers throughout the northwest. (FLOC’s union headquarters are located on Broadway St.)
“We decided that our only real problems were, we didn’t get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Because if we got paid what our labor is worth, we could feed, educate and clothe our own families. I decided that handouts were not the route to go. So our motto became, ‘Justice, Not Charity.’”
From early on, Velásquez built the organization around the idea of a supply-chain approach— focusing on the inequities of the manufacturers toward the farmers his members worked for, rather than the farmers themselves.
“So in effect, the manufacturers marginalize the farmer, and the farmer, to survive, had to marginalize the workers that came to work on his farm. So my first task was convincing the farm workers that the farmer that we worked for wasn’t the real enemy. That the real target should be the major processors and manufacturers that bought the products that we harvested.”
Through this approach, Velásquez has been able to secure precedent-setting agreements with organizations like Campbell’s Soup, Green Bay Foods, the Heinz Company and more, leading to increased wages for workers on farms that supply produce to those companies. Velásquez’s efforts have been heralded with such awards as a MacArthur Genius Grant.
“We have to look at it like a big, dysfunctional family. And what does a good shepherd do, a pastor when a family is broken? Sometimes, you have to separate the partners in order to counsel them separately. Because the objective is getting the facts, and the truth, to the table. And dealing with the actual inequities that are present in that dysfunction, and try to reconcile the differences.”
Q & A
I have always wanted to… have more time to play my guitar.
What do you admire in people? Humility.
What is something most people don’t know about you? I sing Mexican folk music.
What are the words you live by? The first two commandments— love the lord with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
What advice would you give to the younger you? I would say, ‘Talk less and learn more.’
Who is someone you’d like to meet? I’ve thought about that in the past, and the people in the past that I’ve wanted to meet, I’ve met. But I think one person who has always been nagging way in the background for years is the famous running back, Jim Brown.
Who inspires you now? There are some members of FLOC that we represent that have the passion and cause for justice that I had when I started. When I see those people, I get inspired.
Who do you most admire? I admire Pope Francis. He’s spoken out about a lot of important things that people in his position don’t have to.