Dave Austin: Impressions from the inside of FLOC’s sign-up campaign

It’s 3:30 in the afternoon;   24 mostly 20-something-aged kids are role-playing in Spanish – an animated exchange between their comrades role-playing  “farm workers at the labor camp” and the 4 young FLOC organizers who comprise a team both for this role-play, and for the real-life interactions they’ll have in 4 hours out in real farmworker labor camps.  Six teams of four practice for a total of 5 hours today.  The “farmworkers” throw obstacles in the path of the union-recruiting organizer team trying to discuss with the “farmworkers”  why solidarity through FLOC is the best option for improving their own welfare in their own camp, and that of farmworkers across NC.

All 24 know many of these obstacles well, for they’ve faced them every night – in real life —  for the last week …. and will for the next 7 weeks.   I listen in as they’re reminded, in debriefing sessions, of best responses.   For example:

“We already get paid here much better than in Mexico – why should we complain?”    Response: “But what control do you have?  If your paycheck is shorted, what can you do?   If you’re charged to be able to cook at the camp or for transportation to Wal-Mart, what can you do?   If the boss tells you to go into a field right after pesticide application, what can you do? Life may be OK now, but what about tomorrow? When you have no control, things can go bad very fast. With a union, we get some control for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters across North Carolina.”

There are many other dilemmas; some hard to prepare for:  What about the worker who resigned from the union because he felt changes were not happening quickly enough?;   What would FLOC membership do for a member who is just getting 10 hours a week of work until it rains and the tobacco ‘flowers’– what does the contract say about that? What if I encountered a “good” grower who complained about RJ Reynolds’ expensive contract requirements imposed on growers – can we collaborate with this person in some way?  There’s a crew leader who so intimidated workers in this camp that they just lied – said they were all already union members (untrue) just to get us to leave – what can we do?   Two workers had been drinking too much, and their behavior was close to inappropriate with the female organizers – what can we do?

And there are the “good” dilemmas:   “All 6 guys at the camp signed FLOC membership cards, and 3 were earnestly asking  ‘so what can we do?  How can we help?’   So how can we get these guys involved, when our job is to go out to more camps and get more signatures?”

The group deliberates hard and creatively over each of these questions and more.   They want to be prepared for tonight and beyond.   And what’s inspiring is how much they value preparation as a team – after only a week, they’ve all got each others’ backs.    It’s an incredibly hard job – going out to sell the union to workers whose main focus has been simple survival and sending a little money back to Mexico for survival of their families (and who may have been told by their grower and/or crew leader to avoid the union at all costs).  But the young organizers are doing it with resolve and good cheer, and even joy.  And after just a few days, 296 cards signed, and counting …