Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month, the AFL-CIO will be profiling labor leaders and activists to spotlight the diverse contributions Hispanics and Latinos have made to our movement. Today's profile features Baldemar Velásquez.
Baldemar Velásquez was born in 1947 in Pharr, Texas, the son of migrant farm workers who were the second generation to work in that field in the United States. By the time he was five years old, Velásquez joined his family picking sugar beets and tomatoes. He used that experience, along with the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi, César Chávez and Martin Luther King Jr., to pursue a career improving the lives of migrant farm workers.
At the age of 12, he led his first strike, helping migrant workers at his summer job win better wages. After high school, he attended several colleges, graduating from Bluffton College in 1969 with a degree in sociology. He continued working while in college, and in 1967, Velásquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) with his father. The initial idea behind the committee was to organize farm workers to seek improvements in pay, housing and education for pickers. Soon, Velásquez and FLOC were organizing strikes and other actions to convince growers to raise wages and improve working conditions. FLOC had significant success until the American Farm Bureau Federation convinced some growers to withdraw from the market and others to refuse to honor contracts.
In the 1970s, FLOC shifted its attention toward national and international companies, with Velásquez saying that the previous focus on local growers was a mistake and that real change would come from confronting farm-related corporations instead. The new strategy led to victories, including the 1978 strike against the Campbell Soup Co., which was the largest agricultural labor action in the history of the Midwest and which led to the first three-way contract with industry, grower associations and workers. That success led to expanded actions in the South, most notably with successful campaigns for workers at the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. in the 1990s and at R.J. Reynolds tobacco in the 2000s. FLOC became a fully chartered international union and full affiliate of the AFL-CIO in 2006.
His many years of activism on behalf of farm workers led to widespread recognition for Velásquez. In 1989, he was awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship. In 1994, he received the Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award from the National Council of La Raza and the Aguila Azteca Award, the highest honor Mexico gives to non-citizens. He also has been awarded honorary doctoral degrees from several universities, including Bowling Green State University, Bluffton University and the University of Toledo. Velásquez continues as president of FLOC today and advocated on behalf of all workers as a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.