As Eli Porras Carmona boarded a bus on August 22 headed for the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico, it was hard not to think of the money he would typically have made by then. For nearly 20 years, he’s harvested many different North Carolina crops: cabbage, broccoli, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and tobacco.
“But everything has gone to hell,” Porras Carmona said.
The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program allowed American employers to bring in about 372,000 seasonal workers last year. Most years, it operated like clockwork: Longtime H-2A workers like Porras Carmona would know their employer and U.S. location by early spring. He’d have a date to appear at the consulate in Monterrey, where he’d obtain his visa and hop on a bus headed for the United States.
Porras Carmona quit his temporary job in Guanajuato, Mexico in May, expecting to spend the summer working in the fields of North Carolina. But spring flew by and his departure date never arrived. By the time summer rolled around, he was frustrated and angry.
His wife’s meager paycheck working for a pharmacy barely kept the family afloat. He was getting conflicting information about a travel date—that there was no work because there was too much, or too little, rain.
It wasn’t until July 10 that Porras Carmona finally received word to head to the consulate, but two days before leaving, his departure date was again pushed to August 25.
“This is not what’s supposed to happen,” said Porras Carmona.
Others said they were getting a similar runaround. Juan Vega, a longtime H-2A worker, told The Assembly that his April 28 crossing date was changed to September 12. Meanwhile, Vega and Porras Carmona were both hearing from other longtime H-2A workers that new, inexperienced workers were being prioritized for work in North Carolina.
According to the State Department, when an employer with a history of participating in the H-2A program opts for new people over longtime workers, it’s a marker of fraud. But Vega thinks it’s because he and Porras Carmona loudly defected from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC.
Most farmworkers don’t have much recourse for their concerns; less than 1 percent are part of a union like FLOC, which has long been considered a model for farmworker organizing.
Formed in Toledo, Ohio in 1967, it is the second-largest farmworker union in the U.S. Its more than 20,000 members pay 2.5 percent of their weekly wages to receive the union’s backing on issues like workplace grievances and wage disputes. A majority of its members are based in North Carolina, where the union has a contract with the North Carolina Growers Association that serves as the middleman between more than 10,000 H-2A workers and the farms that employ them.
In 2003, FLOC became the first union in the nation to represent H-2A workers—a radical development. H-2A workers are particularly vulnerable; their visas are tied to a single employer who controls their ability to legally reside and work in the U.S. and is supposed to provide workers with housing, transportation, and access to food.
Numerous reports about the program depict trafficking, working conditions akin to modern-day slavery, and documented evidence of physical abuse, starvation, and wage theft. The Southeast has a high concentration of H-2A workers, and of violations of rules protecting them. In 2020, investigators from the Department of Labor found violations in 78 percent of the more than 280 investigations in the region.
Porras Carmona’s ever-shifting departure date was the kind of thing he used to be able to ask FLOC to help with—moving up the date, for example, or at least getting him better information. But he stopped paying his dues last year and has become one of FLOC’s most outspoken critics, alleging that the once-powerful union is not doing enough for the people it’s supposed to represent.
Porras Carmona’s treatment this year on a North Carolina sweet potato farm has given him more anger regarding the many injustices H-2A workers face.
He said that upon arriving in Harnett County, his employer excluded him from work for two weeks in favor of newer workers. H-2A workers are supposed to be guaranteed a certain number of hours per week over the course of their contract, and any time spent sitting around job sites is supposed to be compensable. But H-2A regulations on paper often differ from how the program operates in practice.
Being waylaid in North Carolina without work was a major hit to Porras Carmona’s income, and if not for his H-2A compañeros, he said he’s not sure how he would have eaten.
“There is a lot to do to reverse all of these injustices,” Porras Carmona said in a September 11 WhatsApp message. “Farmers have a lot of influence, and this is what they’ve been allowed to get away with.”
‘FLOC Doesn’t Feel Like A Union Anymore’
Porras Carmona isn’t the only one who feels like FLOC has abandoned the people it’s supposed to represent. Eight former organizers and members who spoke to The Assembly blame the leadership of Baldemar Velásquez.
Velásquez, 76, has been FLOC’s president since its founding in 1967. The son of migrant farmworkers, Velásquez worked in the fields until high school and later became the first person in his family to graduate from college. He founded FLOC when he was just 20, and remains deeply respected in labor organizing circles.
But rumblings about turmoil within the union became public last fall, when the National Catholic Reporter detailed Velásquez’s refusal to step aside after what was supposed to be a final, four-year term as president. Later reporting by Civil Eats on the September 10, 2022 election documented concerns about its legitimacy, as a former FLOC vice president and organizer Leticia Zavala attempted to wrest power from the longtime leader.
Zavala’s campaign, El Futuro Es Nuestro, aimed to pump new life into FLOC by centering the leadership of farmworkers and addressing the issues most important to them—namely complaints against employers and corruption in the H-2A program.
Despite the support of hundreds of FLOC members, Zavala had little chance of winning the election. Velásquez planned the vote in Toledo, Ohio, during the height of North Carolina’s tobacco harvest—ensuring that the overwhelming majority of the members could not attend. They also could not vote virtually, and FLOC only provided transportation to those who could attend both days of the convention—though most farmworkers can only afford to miss one day of work or risk termination.
Ahead of the vote, Velásquez also launched a membership campaign that allowed people who have never worked in agriculture to become “associate members” for $30 and cast ballots as “delegates.” Velásquez defeated Zavala, 135-21.
But discontent manifested well before the election. Workers said it had been years since Velásquez visited their farms or connected directly with members in North Carolina. Many said they feel Velásquez is more concerned with maintaining control of FLOC than ensuring the union’s response to the needs of workers. The union’s six-person leadership team was handpicked by Velásquez and it includes his daughter, Christiana Wagner, in the role of secretary-treasurer.
Others say Velásquez has grown too close to the North Carolina Growers Association, the single largest H-2A employer in the U.S. The Growers Association’s founder, Stan Eury, pioneered the use of the H-2A program. He was later convicted on dozens of charges related to conspiracy, immigration fraud, and money laundering—though as BuzzFeed reported, despite being “the root of Eury’s enterprise,” the Growers Association was not accused of any crimes.
These origins help explain what makes workers like Raul Trejo Chavarria particularly vulnerable to workplace exploitation and abuse. Trejo Chavarria has participated in the H-2A program for almost two decades. He told The Assembly that issues start before workers even set foot in the United States, as many go into significant debt paying for their travel. H-2A regulations require employers to reimburse them for the costs, but many don’t.
Addressing concerns like these is supposed to be among FLOC’s primary functions. But workers say the union is a shadow of what it once was.
“FLOC doesn’t feel like a union anymore, not like it was,” Trejo Chavarria said in a phone call from Mexico last year.
Velásquez initially agreed to speak to The Assembly for this reporting, but he and the union’s media contact ultimately did not reply to eight requests for comment.
El Futuro Es Nuestro has since spun off into its own member-led organization of 300 North Carolina farmworkers, and held its first in-person meeting in Goldsboro on August 6. FLOC workers who called in from Mexico said they are being excluded from H-2A jobs through the NCGA because of their activism with El Futuro Es Nuestro.
It’s a hard assertion to prove, but Velásquez has longstanding relationships with employers through the Growers Association. It also wouldn’t be the first time Velásquez sided with farmers to the detriment of workers. The Virginia Worker, a Marxist publication that covers worker issues, reported in August that Velásquez had pushed for a wage freeze in a 2018 letter to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). According to former FLOC organizers who spoke to the publication, Velasquez also reportedly told staff “to not give farmers any trouble and not to submit too many grievances.”
The backing of a union is supposed to help workers feel comfortable filing grievances against employers and protect them against retaliation. But Trejo Chavarria said he thinks Velásquez has “really turned into just one more member” of the Growers Association.
“There are a lot of complaints that come from H-2A workers, but they don’t respond to us,” he said. “They don’t pay attention to us. They don’t answer our calls.”
Trejo Chavarria was among those who voted against Velásquez in last year’s election.
“We need someone new, someone with a vision and that’s why we saw a solution in Leticia Zavala being a candidate,” he said. “We hoped that she could win and it would be a way out for us and that things would change for the better. That’s not what happened.”
A Painful Process
Leticia Zavala, 44, is a bit of a mythical figure in farmworker organizing. She was a dues-paying FLOC member as a teenager working in the fields of Ohio with her family and is beloved by many FLOC members. The North Carolina resident is FLOC’s former vice president and until 2021, she served as its lead organizer in the state.
The 2022 race was the first time since the 1960s that Velásquez’s leadership was contested. He did not take kindly to the challenge from Zavala, who said she never wanted El Futuro Es Nuestro to be divisive.
Zavala said she asked for Velásquez’s blessing to run against him in April 2021, and her responsibilities at FLOC began to dwindle soon thereafter. Zavala was ultimately fired in September 2022. Justin Flores, another longtime FLOC organizer, former vice president, and former close associate of Velásquez, said he was fired in April 2022, ostensibly for his support of Zavala’s campaign.
In September 2022, Zavala filed a complaint with the Department of Labor against Velásquez and FLOC regarding the election, alleging multiple violations of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act and the union’s constitution. Velásquez ultimately entered into an agreement with the federal agency in July, in which he consented to conducting new nominations and a new election on or before September 30, 2024.
Zavala said the agreement is vindication that the election was carried out undemocratically. She’s willing to throw her hat in the ring once again, if it’s what workers want. Right now, she’s focused on continuing to build El Futuro Es Nuestro. The needs of farmworkers across the state are “too urgent” for her to take a break or become immobilized with grief—and there has been plenty to grieve. She’d known Velásquez since she was a teenager and considered him a mentor, teacher, and family friend. And in August 2022, as issues within FLOC went public, her father died at age 71.
“I see my dad in these guys who are risking their jobs and the opportunity to come back here to work,” Zavala said, breaking into tears. “They are risking it all so that there is a real union and a mechanism for workers to defend themselves.”
She hopes El Futuro Es Nuestro can maintain protections unionized workers have fought for in North Carolina, and extend them to others not currently covered under FLOC’s collective bargaining agreement. Zavala said she struggles with whether to continue discussing the 2022 election; she doesn’t want it to overshadow the bigger problems within FLOC, but also doesn’t want its illegitimacy to be used against unions more broadly.
“There is slavery in the fields of North Carolina. There is abuse,” she said. “If the union isn’t going to stand with the workers—and that is their only hope—where does it leave them?”
Words Taken by the Wind
It’s a cruel irony that among the workers in North Carolina who pick our produce, many don’t have enough to eat and rely on groceries delivered by volunteers or donations from local non-profits. Since last year, Zavala has coordinated food drop-offs for workers while also trying to raise awareness about a problem she first encountered as a FLOC organizer—one that persists for workers on large North Carolina farms: forced meal plans.
The practice of requiring workers to pay between $70 and $80 a week for meals that often consist of little more than beans and a few slices of bologna is not a new phenomena in North Carolina, but during lean months when workers are barely scraping by, it is particularly egregious.
Felix, who asked to use only his first name for fear of reprisal, is a FLOC member who works throughout North Carolina. He said that the meal plans workers are forced to pay for are too expensive and the food is unacceptable for physical labor. Some days, he spends 12 hours on his feet, often in extreme temperatures while lugging around large, heavy buckets filled with sweet potatoes.
“For us on the farms, lunch or dinner might be three slices of ham with fried potatoes and two or three tortillas,” Felix said. “That’s not sustainable for us workers in the fields with buckets that weigh 25 pounds. Imagine what kind of nutrients we need to finish our day.”
Felix and other farmworkers say they have fought against forced meal plans, going as far as filing a grievance with FLOC in 2020. The grievance process is arduous; a worker first must first try to directly address the issue with their employer. If no resolution is reached, FLOC’s president is supposed to meet with a representative of the Growers Association to come to an agreement.
Farmworkers aren’t covered under the National Labor Relations Act, so if a dispute can’t be settled, it goes before a five-member commission that includes workers, Growers Association representatives, and a neutral party.
Felix said that the grievance went all the way to the commission and workers won. An agreement was signed that should have ended the practice of forced meal plans on their farm, and on all farms covered under FLOC’s collective bargaining agreement.
“But there hasn’t been any follow up,” Felix said. “Words were taken by the wind, and nothing has changed.”
This summer has been particularly grueling, as record high temperatures led to at least two farmworker deaths. The early fall brings temperature relief, but the height of tobacco season means the return of “the green monster.”
Officially known as Green Tobacco Sickness, it’s essentially nicotine poisoning that leads to nausea and vomiting. Uninsured and marginalized H-2A workers laboring in rural fields have few options other than to sweat it out.
FLOC’s critics say the union is failing to adequately address these dangerous conditions. On September 8, FLOC posted an article on Facebook about the heat-related death of José Arturo González Mendoza, an H-2A worker from Guanajuato, Mexico who worked at Barnes Farming in Spring Hope.
Velásquez’s daughter wrote on Facebook that FLOC is “deeply saddened” by the worker’s death and that they are “praying for his wife and two young children.” Other than a passing reference about working to gather information on his death, FLOC made no mention of farmworker outreach, training, or other actionable steps.
Meanwhile, El Futuro Es Nuestro mobilized in North Carolina, partnering with local groups and the binational workers’ rights organization Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) to offer a September legal clinic to dozens of H-2A workers from across the state—including farmworkers from Barnes Farming. Zavala said 11 Barnes workers were able to apply for deferred action, or legal protection against deportation for reporting labor violations.
Another North Carolina farmworker death on July 19 “may have been related to heat stress,” according to the North Carolina Department of Labor. But no other information about that death has been released, and FLOC has offered no commentary.
Ego and Machismo
Velásquez, meanwhile, has spent the summer traveling to the United Kingdom and Switzerland. He also traveled to Virginia for an event that made his ongoing dispute with Zavala even more public and personal.
Last October, Zavala filed a defamation suit against two women who alleged in writing that she and former North Carolina FLOC organizer Maria Mejia used threats and intimidation to fight Velásquez’s re-election campaign. The women claimed Zavala told them that if they voted for Velásquez, they would go to jail as accomplices to his “fraud,” and that Zavala said she would give their names to immigration officials who could deport them for “voting for a man who only robs and swindles immigrants.”
Zavala, who has recordings of her interactions with the women, alleges as part of her suit that the women’s statements stem from a letter that Velásquez wrote and got them to sign onto. According to The Virginia Worker, the two women are among those who paid to become associate members of FLOC last year, but neither is a farmworker and both live in Virginia—a state where FLOC doesn’t represent farmworkers under contract.
Zavala’s lawsuit is moving forward, with a court hearing scheduled for this month. Velásquez has used the case as another opportunity to promote, well, himself. On July 9, FLOC’s president held a bizarre rally in Martinsville, Virginia he framed as an effort to support the women named in the defamation suit from an “anti-union group.” Many saw the event as a thinly veiled attack on Zavala.
Velásquez hired a cameraman to film the event and entered the venue to the sound of his own speeches playing over the loudspeaker. At one point, he insisted that Zavala and other former FLOC employees were terminated for “insubordination.” Velásquez touted his support for women and announced that he was revamping FLOC’s long-dormant women’s committee, to be overseen by his daughter.
Former FLOC vice president Flores said “ego and machismo” are major aspects of Velásquez’s personality, for better or worse: “There are ways in which his ego allows him to do great things and take on crazy battles, like deciding to go up against the biggest tobacco company in the world.”
FLOC’s future is in Velásquez’s hands, at least for now—and there is a lot at stake. As this summer showed, climate change is making already dangerous jobs more deadly. And while new proposed rules the Department of Labor released last month would strengthen protections for farmworkers, they will also likely fuel tensions with employers who claim the H-2A program is already too costly and cumbersome.
Zavala, who first began speaking to The Assembly for this story in February 2022, has generally been reluctant to discuss issues inside FLOC. She said she cared for Velásquez and believed in the mission of the union. But ultimately she realized she was making an error that is all too common in social justice movements.
“We idolize people because of the strength and bravery a leader needs to have,” Zavala explained. “But we have to help leaders remember that they have responsibilities to the people they serve, and their position isn’t a God-given gift.”
Correction: The parties implicated in the defamation suit and the years that Zavala and Flores were fired have been corrected. And while Flores has a law degree, he is not a practicing attorney.
Tina Vasquez is a North Carolina-based movement journalist with more than 15 years of experience reporting on immigration, reproductive injustice, food, labor, and culture. Currently, she is editor-at-large of the non-profit newsroom Prism.