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U.S. farmworkers win union on farms of Campbell's Soup, 1978-1986
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) was founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez as a labor group that would allow farm workers to stand up for their rights. The FLOC fought to improve the working conditions for farmworkers who were having their rights ignored while being mistreated and underpaid in the fields. In addition to being paid at a very low level, leaving many farmworkers living below the national poverty level, farmworkers’ health conditions were very poor. These farmworkers were not provided with healthcare and medical insurance despite being exposed to dangerous toxins in pesticides, and many were provided with housing that was sub-standard. It was these conditions that led Baldemar Velasquez and the FLOC to start a campaign against Campbell’s Soup Company.
In 1978, the FLOC made efforts to speak with Campbell’s Soup about improving the working conditions for the farmworkers who picked the vegetables that were going in their soups. When these efforts were ignored, 2,300 farmworkers voted to strike against the Campbell’s Soup Company in what would be the largest agricultural strike in the history of the Midwest. The 2,300 farmworkers walked off the fields and demanded a guaranteed minimum wage that would be established through collective bargaining, an end to pesticide spraying while workers were in the fields, outdoor plumbing at the shacks they were housed in, and work site toilets.
While some growers were willing to negotiate, larger canneries such as Campbell’s Soup refused. The Campbell’s Soup Company argued that it did not directly employ the farmworkers that wanted the improved working conditions, but rather that the growers were responsible for such changes. Despite this claim, Campbell’s Soup brought in advisers to help the growers break the strike by bringing in strike-breakers and instructed all growers to use mechanical harvesters.
In the summer of 1979, FLOC held its first Constitutional Convention in Holgate, Ohio. At this meeting, workers in the FLOC called for a boycott of Campbell’s Soup products because it was an effective method for powerless farmworkers and their supporters to combat a large corporation with economic and political power.
As the strike continued against Campbell’s Soup Company, the FLOC organized its efforts on two fronts. Firstly, the FLOC continued to organize farmworkers involved in Campbell’s operations, mostly in the Midwest, but also in Texas and Florida. The second effort focused on mobilizing popular support from groups outside of the farmworkers. To accomplish this, the FLOC worked to gain support from members of church, labor, and other organizations that were sympathetic to the farmworker rights. Such groups were asked to endorse the boycott and inform its members of the issues. This proved to be very helpful during the migrant season, when many of these supporting groups raised funds to collect food and clothing for the strikers.
In 1983, the FLOC organized a 550-mile farmworkers’ march from Toledo, Ohio, to Campbell’s Soup’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey. Along the route, marchers were met with community support in the form of food, shelter, and shoes. In Philadelphia, the marchers held a large rally, which was followed by a mass in the Catholic cathedral in Camden. At this mass, fifteen priests washed off the feet of the marchers as a sign of support for their cause. The following day, when workers arrived at Campbell’s Soup’s headquarters, they held a demonstration outside the building that featured chants and songs calling others to “Boycott Campbell’s.” At this demonstration, the campaigners presented a workers’ petition, which asked the company to respond to the needs of the farmworkers by negotiating with the FLOC.
In the summer of 1984, Corporate Campaign Incorporated (CCI) joined the FLOC’s struggle against Campbell’s Soup after CCI president Ray Rogers visited farm labor camps in Ohio and Michigan, becoming directly exposed to the poor working/living conditions the farmworkers faced. At this point, CCI helped FLOC’s cause by researching Campbell’s corporate structure, developing a Corporate Campaign strategy, producing literature and mailings, providing training and support, and also providing an office space in New York City.
On February 19, 1986, after two years of scattered negotiations, the FLOC, Campbell’s Soup, and Campbell’s tomato and pickle growers in Ohio and Michigan signed a historic three-way labor contract. Elections were held on farms supplying Campbell’s, and over 3,100 farmworkers signed on to join the FLOC. Under the agreement, these workers were guaranteed union recognition and had an equal voice in negotiating their wages and working conditions. In addition, now all workers were clearly classified as paid employees with guaranteed minimum earnings and a system of incentive payments for workers that produced higher yields. Farmworkers also now had workers compensation, unemployment compensation, and Social Security benefits. These new agreements guaranteed that farmworkers had a direct voice in conditions that could affect their well-being.