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The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest

The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest
Social Change and Adaptation among Migrant Farmworkers
Foreword by Baldemar Velásquez

The development and effectiveness of a farmworkers' advocacy group.

January 1993
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295 pages | 6 x 9 | 26 b&w illus., 14 figures, 20 tables |

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) was founded by Baldemar Velásquez in 1967 to challenge the poverty and powerlessness that confronted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest. This study documents FLOC's development through its first quarter century and analyzes its effectiveness as a social reform movement.

Barger and Reza describe FLOC's founding as a sister organization of the United Farm Workers (UFW). They devote particular attention to FLOC's eight-year struggle (1978-1986) with the Campbell Soup company that led to three-way contracts for improved working conditions between FLOC, Campbell Soup, and Campbell's tomato and cucumber growers in Ohio and Michigan. This contract significantly changed the structure of agribusiness and instituted key reforms in American farm labor.

The authors also address the processes of social change involved in FLOC actions. Their findings are based on extensive research among farmworkers, growers, and representatives of agribusiness, as well as personal involvement with FLOC leaders and supporters.

  • Foreword by Baldemar Velásquez
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Social Reform and Adaptation
  • Chapter 2. Midwestern Farmworkers
  • Chapter 3. The FLOC Movement
  • Chapter 4. The Internal Potentials of the FLOC Movement
  • Chapter 5. The Social Environment of the FLOC Movement
  • Chapter 6. FLOC and Social Reform
  • Chapter 7. Social Adaptation of Midwestern Farmworkers
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This book is about the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which represents a social reform movement of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the Midwest. We have two purposes in preparing this book. One is to document the story of FLOC, and the second is to examine those processes in social change that directed the movement and helped FLOC achieve its major goals. FLOC's story began in 1967, when Baldemar Velásquez founded the movement. For eight years, from 1978 to 1986, FLOC farmworkers struggled with Campbell Soup to win a direct voice in their own conditions. They were supported in this struggle by churches, labor unions, and over a million individual Americans. These supporters cast their vote for social justice in the marketplace by boycotting Campbell's products. In 1986 and 1987, three-way contracts were signed by FLOC, Campbell, and Campbell's tomato and cucumber growers in Ohio and Michigan. Similar contracts were signed in 1987 with Heinz and its cucumber growers in Ohio and Michigan and in 1991 with Dean Foods and its cucumber growers in the same states. These contracts instituted significant social reforms in the American socioeconomic system in which farmworkers exist.

Each of our purposes in preparing this book may appeal to different audiences. Some readers will be specifically interested in FLOC, the farm labor movement, and issues such as social justice. Others will be interested in the process of social change, as illustrated by a particular social reform movement. We ask each audience to consider the additional lessons in the other's interests, which will supplement their own learning.

In documenting the FLOC movement, we will review the case of those migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the Midwest whose labor produces the food we eat every day. These workers are at least as important to our personal and national well-being as those who produce our petroleum, educate our children, and provide us with health care. Yet it is still a shock to realize that the people who produce our food are themselves malnourished. They live in poverty and suffer among the most severe health problems of any group in the country. A long series of studies document that these conditions have remained virtually unchanged for almost a century. The deprived conditions experienced by farmworkers reflect America at its worst, the results of displaced priorities in our economic and social systems.

There are a number of options for solving the problems farmworkers face, from enacting new legal standards to providing social welfare services. But the alternative that has historically been the most effective is the farm labor movement, led by the United Farm Workers (UFW) in California. FLOC is a sister group, which has sought similar reforms for farmworkers in the Midwest. This book, then, documents the story of FLOC and its role in achieving farm labor reforms in the Midwest.

For those readers primarily interested in the FLOC case, we would like you to be aware of the organization of this book. We are examining the story of FLOC from a systems perspective of social change. That is, we are looking at two sets of forces that have guided the FLOC movement. One involves those forces that are internal to midwestern farmworkers. These factors include their living and working conditions, their motivations for seeking changes, their inherent powerlessness to make meaningful changes on their own, and their support for the FLOC movement. The other set involves external forces in the farmworkers' larger societal environment. These include both those who have supported FLOC's efforts and those who have opposed farm labor reforms.

In the first chapter, we explain our systems approach to social change, which we believe will help all readers better understand the FLOC story. We then describe midwestern farmworkers and their living and working conditions in the second chapter. Chapter 3 provides a history of the FLOC movement. In the next two chapters, we review those internal and external forces that have contributed to FLOC's success. Chapter 6 summarizes the impacts of the FLOC movement on farmworkers and on the socioeconomic system in which they exist. In the final chapter, we review the FLOC case in terms of the systems model of social change, which explains the forces that have directed the FLOC movement and enabled it to achieve social reforms. Readers who are primarily interested in the FLOC story will find a full documentation of the movement in Chapters 2 through 6. We urge you to also look at the first and last chapters, which we believe will help you better understand how and why the FLOC movement has been able to make significant social changes.

Our second purpose in writing this book is to examine the processes of social change in the FLOC case. We wish not only to tell the story of FLOC but to explain why and how FLOC was able to achieve farm labor reforms in the Midwest. Social change is a phenomenon that affects us all. Every day we encounter ideas about "progress," the "good old days," the "stresses of modern life," and new "opportunities." Politicians, teachers, investors, evangelists, revolutionaries, corporate managers, and many others are constantly seeking to change our daily lives. Yet how well do these change agents understand social change itself? How well can they foresee the impacts of the changes they propose, particularly the negative effects? How well do we understand how their changes will affect us? Do either we or they really know why and how changes occur as they do? Do we understand enough to make sure that changes are constructive?

For those readers interested in social change, we have organized a set of ideas about systems change to better understand the FLOC story. We generally look at FLOC as a social reform movement, but we specifically examine the FLOC movement in terms of systems adaptation. FLOC represents a successful attempt by midwestern farmworkers to achieve a more worthwhile life. As already indicated, the perspective of systems adaptation can help us understand the internal and external forces that have guided social change in the FLOC case. In the first chapter, we review those ideas about systems change, which help us understand the FLOC movement. Chapters 2 through 6 document the forces, processes, and outcomes evident in the FLOC movement. And in the last chapter, we summarize those ideas about social adaptation, which are illustrated in the FLOC case. We urge you to consider the ideas about social change presented here. But we also urge you to examine carefully the specifics of the FLOC story, since it is a unique case that has important lessons for understanding social change.

We have used a number of research methods in examining the FLOC case. We have been involved in continuing field work for over ten years with midwestern farmworkers and with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. On the one hand, we have sought to understand the meaningful experiences and views of farmworkers and others affected by the FLOC movement. We have thus conducted systematic participation-observation in migrant camps and at FLOC activities. We were there when many of the events described in this account occurred. We have interviewed farmworkers and have talked with growers and representatives of agribusinesses. We have informally discussed issues and events with FLOC's leaders and supporters over the years. We have also sought to understand how views and experiences are distributed and how some factors affect other factors. We have thus conducted field surveys among farmworkers and among the public in the Midwest.

We have drawn upon our combined knowledge and skills in presenting the concepts and materials included in this work. Concepts and methods from cultural anthropology, brought to this study by Barger, are supplemented by those from organizational psychology, brought by Reza. Reza has contributed insights from the perspective of a Mexican American, which are complemented by the Anglo American perspectives of Barger. We both have also contributed our personal experiences with the FLOC movement, which include working on the FLOC staff and community organizing in support of FLOC's boycott of Campbell Soup. We have thus drawn upon the breadth and depth of our combined knowledge and experience in understanding and presenting the FLOC story.

In presenting the story of FLOC, we should clarify that our involvement has not been an abstract, detached study. We have both been directly involved in supporting FLOC in its efforts. Barger coordinated a local support group in central Indiana that advocated FLOC and its boycott against Campbell Soup, and Reza served on FLOC's staff, coordinating its boycott activities (Barger and Reza 1985a, 1987). At the same time, we have both operated from an academic base in conducting field surveys, interviewing farmworkers and key people involved in the FLOC struggle, and observing the course of the FLOC movement. Some might feel that academic research and applied involvements are mutually exclusive activities. We disagree.

We argue that holding the highest scientific standards possible in applied activities is an ethical as well as a professional responsibility. Since applied work inherently involves social changes and can therefore make a direct impact in people's lives, we need to assess carefully where we are valid in our understandings and also where we are limited. When pressed, most scientists would agree that there is no such thing as purely "objective" research because the whole research process from beginning to end is influenced by conceptual, methodological, situational, and personal biases. Valid scientific research is therefore based on the control of such biases rather than their absence. Such controls must be consciously included in the conceptualization of the issue, in the collection of data, in the analysis of data, and in making grounded interpretations of findings. In addition, we have tried to clearly state our value positions so the reader will be aware of our perspectives in discussing events and the issues.

We also believe that applied work can make as important theoretical contributions as "pure" research. This is because the validity of concepts and methods are prospectively tested in the real world. Since applied work inherently involves change, we need to be validly grounded in our understandings if those changes are to be predicted and constructive. For example, the model of sociocultural change used in applied projects (or the lack of clear conceptual understandings of change) can be crucial to the constructive achievements of such projects. Our concept of change will be tested in concrete life situations, for better or for worse. That is why we have invested so much effort in developing the model of systems adaptation concept presented here (Barger 1982 and 1977; Barger and Reza 1987). We have felt the need to understand social change in a valid and predictive manner because we have been so invested in applied change.

We argue that because value positions are taken in applied change, the highest scientific standards are needed. We must have valid understandings if our contributions are to be effective and constructive. For example, in the 1983 survey of midwestern farmworkers, it would have been satisfying to find that all farmworkers were solidly behind FLOC, and it would have been easy to invest less effort because we were "sure" this was the case. In order for FLOC to be truly effective in making farm labor reforms, however, we also needed to understand the views and motivations of those workers who were unconcerned about the issues and also of those who were opposed. Because we did have value commitments for effective changes, we had to prove to ourselves what FLOC's actual situation was. If it was to make effective reforms, the farm labor movement could not rely on something that was not there. We are satisfied that our research data, analysis, and conclusions are valid and fulfill scientific standards more than most "pure" social research.

We readily acknowledge that we have several biases in our study of the FLOC case. As some see a glass of water as half-full rather than half-empty, we have been greatly impressed with FLOC's efforts. Having seen firsthand the bitterness of some growers against FLOC, for example, we were amazed to see some of these same farmers address the 1991 convention of FLOC farmworkers, praising them for their achievements. We have also observed over the years a number of farmworkers grow from cautious and defensive individuals to proud, confident, and active FLOC members. Our intimate involvement with the FLOC movement has also provided us with insights into FLOC's reasoning, strengths, and limitations in activities to organize midwestern farmworkers and win social reforms. We believe that our biases are an asset in presenting the FLOC story and that as a result, the reader will gain better understanding of the change process involving the FLOC movement.

There are many people whom we wish to recognize as having contributed to this volume. The 1982 public survey cited in this report was codirected by Ain Haas in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University at Indianapolis. This survey was supported by the Indiana Council of Churches, the Indiana Catholic Conference, and the Project Development Program of Indiana University at Indianapolis. The 1983 field survey of midwestern farmworkers, which is also cited, was supported by the Project Development Program of Indiana University at Indianapolis. In addition, Bill Plater, John Barlow, Susan Sutton, Wendell McBurney and Anne Kratz of Indiana University at Indianapolis provided both material support and personal encouragement in our field research and manuscript preparation. Their support has made possible our long-term professional involvement with farm labor issues. Mary Qualls Grossman, Vicki Cummings Copenhaven, and Rosío Yaselli assisted in the collection and analysis of research data. Karen Swing helped identify photographs to illustrate the textual materials. Mary Templin, Theo Majka, and Amy Keeler reviewed drafts of the manuscript and provided valuable feedback and input into the accuracy and balance of the contents. Theresa May, executive editor of the University of Texas Press, also provided excellent feedback, advice, and support in preparing this book. In addition, Nancy Warrington helped move the book through the process of publication with efficiency and cheerfulness, and Rebecca Schwartz's technical editing helped make the text more focused and readable. Marnia Kennon, Philip Barger, and Rosa Rivera endured our absences in both mind and body in our work with FLOC and in the preparation of this book, and we are grateful for their moral support.

We also wish to thank those farmworkers who shared with us their experiences and who actively cooperated in our field research. We particularly wish to express our deep appreciation to Baldemar Velásquez and to the staff and members of FLOC. Their struggle for dignity and social justice for midwestern farmworkers has contributed to a society where these values can be better realized for all of us, and it is this ideal that has inspired this book. We therefore dedicate this volume to them, and also to the FLOC kids, Philip, and the next generation of Americans. May those who come after us experience greater justice and dignity as a result of the achievements of FLOC and other social movements that promote the human worth of all individuals and groups in our society.