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Justin Flores: How farm workers win in the South

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Focusing on self-determination and corporate responsibility

"Farm workers never had the right to organize," says Justin Flores with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), one of seven panelists Feb. 17 at Duke who talked about how a southern workers movement can change the nation. But FLOC is doing it anyway and doing it in the South.

Referring to co-panelist Keith Ludlum, whom Smithfield Foods fired during an organizing campaign and fought unsuccessfully for 12 years to keep him fired, Justin said, "If Keith was a farm worker, he wouldn't have a 12-year appeal process. He would have no appeal process."

"That's largely the reason farm workers are still making poverty wages, working with no overtime, in long days in the August sun picking tobacco largely have no workers' compensation insurance, no benefits.

"I encourage people to get educated about who's picking that tobacco, who's picking those tomatoes, who's picking those cucumbers."

How are farm laborers organizing in the South despite these challenges? By focusing on their right to "self-determination and corporate responsibility," says Justin.

"It's easy to get mad at the grower, but that grower is part of a supply chain," says Justin.

"That grower is largely not a very wealthy man, but he sells his tobacco to a company that is a billion-dollar multinational corporation that set up a supply chain that keeps us fighting with the growers. It keeps the workers and the growers arguing [over wages and working conditions]. That is the wrong argument."

How can farm workers win organizing victories against huge, multinational corporations in the South - like they did at Mt. Olive Pickle Company?

"When you impede the rich man's ability to make money, everything is negotiable," said Justin, telling the story of how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once answered a similar question by FLOC founder and president, Baldemar Velasquez.

Justin says we must never forget that the corporations fighting workers' right to self-determination and fighting to not take responsibility for working conditions are themselves organized.

"The funniest thing about the Chamber of Commerce going after unions is, what is the Chamber of Commerce? It's a union of companies!"

Full remarks by Justin Flores at the Organize the South Panel at Duke University are available on YouTube.