Photo credit: FLOC

Baldemar Velásquez in the tobacco fields

Take a break from politics for a few minutes and share with me the powerful experiences of Baldemar Velásquez, founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), an AFL-CIO affiliate. He wrote a daily blog while working recently as an unknown field laborer in North Carolina to see firsthand the conditions of tobacco workers.

Tobacco workers are paid between $7 and $9 an hour. North Carolina leads the nation in heat stroke deaths, and workers also must battle nicotine poisoning. Velásquez is donating the money he made to FLOC’s fund for widows of union members.

As Velásquez writes:

During the week, I gained an even greater admiration and respect for the workers. While they often are portrayed by the talking heads on radio and TV as law breakers and terrorists, the reality is that those who can come with a visa to work do so. But the demand for agricultural labor exceeds the supply, so these workers come any way they can. The men I worked with were law abiding and only came here to be able to support their families back home.

Here are some excerpts from his blogs. (To read all his blogs, click here.)

July 28: The men found me some rubber boots and a roll of plastic bags to fashion a poncho to keep the morning dew from soaking my clothes. The job, which began around 7 a.m., was topping, suckering and weeding. The flower had to be broken off the top and the suckers had to be gleaned from the leaf. The suckers look like little shoots of romaine lettuce. One of the men, nicknamed El Nino, tells me he was divorced last year. He remains a loyal father by supporting his four children, ages 17, 16, 12 and 4. He is determined that his kids get an education and not be left in dead-end jobs in Mexico. He feels being in the U.S. for so long a time didn’t help his marriage but lack of jobs in Mexico led him to enter the H-2A guest worker program.

All day I was nervous about the nicotine and tar. The "Green Monster," as they know it, is nicotine poisoning ingested through the skin. I was lucky to find some light gloves with grips on them. They’ll get wet but at least there would be a shield from the tar and nicotine. I got a set of three pairs, so we’ll see how they work.

July 29: At 6:30 a.m., I was already clammy from the humidity and dressed in my next set of shirt and trousers, which is almost a must unless you want to wash clothes every night. You can’t help but get tar and nicotine all over, so careful avoidance and contact minimizes the ingestion. The gloves I got yesterday helped a lot, they worked great. I did have to throw them away tonight as they were pretty sticky and black with what would have been on my hands.

July 31: This farmer complies with all the field sanitation standards and has plenty of water [but] it’s impossible to keep really hydrated as the heat, I think, hit 100 degrees today. Even then the top half of my pants was soaked in sweat by 8:30 a.m. It is easy to see how men can die of heat stroke. Heat exhaustion can be compounded by the nicotine, which, thank God, has not affected me.

August 1: Waking up at 5:30 this morning, I realized that my hands were tingling with numbness. I thought that it was from sleeping on them. On the way to the field, I told the men in the van with me about my hands being swollen, as they looked at each other and Shorty responded, “That’s the way we all are.” They said it would eventually go away after a week or so. Even with the plastic protection, my sleeves and gloves were soaked.

August 2: I finished the last day of work with the men today. I felt a little sad about ending my work with these men, even though it got very hot in the hollow we were working in. It was more like a cauldron, but I worked to the last stalk and helped the last man. I felt like I didn’t want this to end.

Early last night, it occurred to me how special it had been that the men had been sharing their lives with me, bad and good, all week. God put in my heart to call the only pastor I knew that might come and help me do this and come to bless the men and their families.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, [an African American minister in Greensboro, N.C.] had been meeting with the R.J. Reynolds Co. to advocate a dialogue between FLOC and the company.

He came to the fields. It was a powerful experience. He arrives prior to lunch, and right out there in the middle of the tobacco field we all prayed. When we finished, I noticed Caballo and Rudy [two of the workers] with tears on their faces. Rudy told me tonight that “when he got to blessing the families in Mexico, I’m a man but I couldn’t hold back my emotions because this is why I do this and also because this man who is not of my race would come and pray these words…it made me feel like somebody out there is listening to us and we’re not forgotten.”

August 5: Although my hands feel better, there is still a lot of tingling, especially in my fingers if I leave them elevated for any length of time. I can actually close my fist now, where Sunday I couldn’t possibly do it without some serious pain.

When it got close to my leaving, all [the workers] lined up to express their appreciation for my being with them. Rudy got overly emotional and enveloped me in a huge abrazo (hug) and would not let me go, saying, “Eres de buen metal porque te criaron como nosotros.” (You are of good metal because you were raised like us.) “Por eso ajuantates toda la semana.” (That’s why you lasted all week.) “Eres puro campesino, tabacalero.” (You are pure farm worker, tobacco worker.)

Of all the titles I’ve been honored with, this one has to be the most personal and most cherished, bestowed by a humble farm worker whom I profoundly respect and is my friend whom I love. Yo soy campesino, tabacalero. (I am a pure farm worker, tobacco worker.)

Tula Connell

Tula Connell