Handcuffed in defense of farmworker rights

FLOCmailboxThe irate grower cut off conversation. “I’m giving you to the count of five to get off my property. Five, four, three…” Union organizer Raul Jimenez stood firm.

“Two! One!! Okay lock him up.” The sheriff snapped on the cuffs.

This is what I saw late last night at a farmworker labor camp outside Faison, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh. I was there at the request of the Farmworker Labor Organizing Committee to observe their attempts to sign up members for their union.

The goal of FLOC is to offer the benefits of collective bargaining to migrant and seasonal farmworkers, a largely ignored population of laborers at the lowest rung of America’s economic ladder. Remarkably, they are excluded to this day from many job protections everyone else takes for granted—overtime rights, reasonable child labor laws, and more—of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Raul and I had been at the camp, a cinder-block barracks housing 28 men in the U.S. on H-2A visas, for more than an hour. Raul, a gentle-mannered former farmworker himself, with a sharp mind and abundant charisma, had been informing individuals and small groups of the benefits of joining the union to deal with poor living, working and wage conditions. The men received him with smiles and shared stories Raul could relate to.

The men told Raul of a wage offense they are experiencing right now: They are still awaiting reimbursement of $300 they paid to travel from Mexico to the farm. According to Raul the grower is required to make that reimbursement—a small fortune to a worker earning around $10,000 a year—during la primera semana. The first week. These men had been here more than two months. This is exactly the type of crime, Raul explained, a union can help prevent.

As an observer I was provided a letter from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office referenced by FLOC to justify their presence at farmworker camps. According to the letter, case law demonstrated the workers First Amendment rights to visitors, even on “company-owned” land, trumped the growers charge of trespassing.

Raul explained this justification many times to the grower, the sheriff, and the pair of encardados or supervisors. And of course Raul explained this to the men who sat in rapt attention, asking questions and confirming they wanted Raul to be there. “Tengo tu permiso ser aqui?” he asked a number of times. “Claro,” they answered.

With his hands cuffed behind his back, Raul asked me to get the car keys from his pocket so I could drive back to the FLOC office. As the sheriff helped fish out the keys, the red-faced grower interrupted.

“I’ll give you one last chance. Will you leave my property if he takes off those cuffs?”

Raul had to make a decision. “Can I have a second to think about it?”

“No!” said the grower.

“Okay I’ll leave,” answered Raul.

As we drove away I asked Raul what he was thinking. “I think the sheriff wasn’t too sure about all that,” he said with a wry smile. “He put on those cuffs pretty loose.”

Raul Jimenez, in red shirt, coordinating organizers at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, NC
Raul Jimenez, in red shirt, coordinating organizers at FLOC headquarters in Dudley, NC