BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: I told Campbell Soup executives, I told the Heinz executives, I told the Dean Foods executives, I told the Mt. Olive executives, the CEO, and I'm telling Reynolds America right now, "You're a good man. But the system that you operate is wrong. And it's built on inequity. And you need to fix it, because you have the power to do so."
BILL MOYERS: And…
TOM DIAZ: There are bad people in the world. But the presence of firearms makes an encounter with a bad person even more dangerous.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. My generation was moved and shocked by one of the most powerful documentaries ever made. Broadcast the night after thanksgiving in 1960, Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame” exposed us to the callous exploitation of the migrant workers who pick our fruit and vegetables.
EDWARD R. MURROW in Harvest of Shame: This is an American story that begins in Florida and ends in New Jersey and New York State with the harvest. It is a 1960’s “Grapes of Wrath” that begins at the Mexican border in California and ends in Oregon and Washington. It is the story of men and women and children who work 136 days of the year and average nine hundred dollars a year.
They travel in buses. They ride trucks. They follow the sun. […] They are the migrants. Workers in the sweat shops of the soil. The harvest of shame.
BILL MOYERS: Believe it or not, more than fifty years later, the life of a migrant laborer is still an ordeal. And not just for adults. Perhaps as many as half a million children, some as young as seven years old, are out in the fields and orchards working nine to ten hour days under brutal conditions.
A few decades ago, Baldemar Velásquez was one of those kids, working in the fields beside his parents who eventually migrated to Ohio, where he still lives.
His experience led him to a life organizing and fighting for social justice for workers still trapped, in his words, “by their own fate and historical design.”
Following in the footsteps of the legendary Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, Velasquez founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee – or FLOC – and slowly built a movement, taking on some of the biggest corporate giants in America.
In 1978, he led more than 2,000 workers in Ohio and Michigan on strike against vegetable growers and the Campbell Soup company. The walkout and accompanying boycott were the largest agricultural labor action in the history of the Midwest. Eight years later, Campbell’s and the growers agreed to a deal, the first farm labor contract outside of California.
These days, Baldemar Velásquez and FLOC are targeting R.J. Reynolds, the largest tobacco company in North Carolina and the second biggest in America. Earlier this month, Velásquez joined protesters at the weekly “Moral Monday” rallies outside North Carolina’s capitol in Raleigh, demonstrating against draconian budget cuts and union busting.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ at "Moral Monday" Rally: But this rich manufacturer from Toledo was calling me about organizing the migrant workers in Ohio. He says I want to talk to you about why you oppose me. So he invites me to his country club, and so I go to this country club and I say are you a member of this country club, why are you a member of this country club? He said because this is where I do my networking, this is where I gather with people like myself, to overcome the obstacles of doing my business. You a member the Chamber of Commerce right? For the same reason. Yeah I said you remember the Rotary club for the same reason, he says yeah. I said how come you white guys can have all the unions and us Mexicans can’t have one?
BILL MOYERS: He was briefly arrested and surrendered peacefully, all part of the gospel according to Baldemar Velásquez, quote “Speak truth to power with love in your heart. Pray for courage to speak it despite your fears. Explain the inequity and show your enemy the road to reconciliation.”
Baldemar Velásquez is with me now. It’s good to meet you.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: What was it like when you were a boy growing up? Your parents were working in the field. You were working in the field. What was your day like?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, pretty much like farm workers have now. That they get up at day break. And you have to work hard and fast, because when I was young many of the crops were piece rate. There was no such thing--
BILL MOYERS: Piece rate meaning?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, you get paid per container, or even by the acre. If you didn't work and fill those buckets or whatever, you didn't get paid. And you didn't have anything to eat. So you're primarily just trying to make enough just to eat and maybe have some money to buy clothes and be, try to make it, follow the next crop, where it hopefully will go better.
Just the other day, we were joking about, my brother Jose and I, my younger brother, sometimes there were such sparse food in the house that we would actually count the beans on our plate to make sure we had the equal number of beans. If there was an odd bean, we'd cut it in half.
BILL MOYERS: What did it do to your parents, that they couldn't provide for all of you?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: That was one of the most traumatic things growing up. You see, being poor is in and of itself not traumatic. It's an inconvenience, but being poor and powerless to withstand the mistreatment, to watch my mom and dad be mistreated and are being fooled about the wages and exactly stolen from us.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, when you're working piece rate, like, my dad didn't know very much English. And he would, we were, say we were hoeing sugar beets. And we were getting paid by the acre.
And my dad would always ask, "Well, how many rows are in an acre?" So they tell him whatever many rows. And by this time, I was already in junior high school. And I was learning math. I was always good at math. Because as a little kid, you're picking by piece rate, you're counting all the time. So I knew numbers pretty good. And so I said, well, I learned how many square feet there were in an acre and what the length and the width would be. And so I just, one day, I just got down on my knees and with a foot ruler and measured off the length of a field and worked backwards and figured out what the width would be. And then measured out the width with that ruler. And figured-- and then counted the rows in that width. And I find out that for every acre we hoed, we were two or three rows more than what the acre actually was. So when you hoe a 40-acre field, you're only getting paid for 33 or 34 acres. And that's the way they cheated us. And I would tell my dad, "They're cheating us dad." You know, they're-- that's not how many rows are in an acre. This is the correct number."
BILL MOYERS: So what could you do about it? Given that they were in charge?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Nothing. That's the problem. There was no way for us to complain. No way for us to appeal to anyone. And if we wanted to go to local law enforcement, well, the farmers were all related to the law enforce. Some of them were family in the law enforcement, whether they're the judges or the police or the sheriff of the county. And it made it, almost, this is not to our advantage to complain. Because then you would be blacklisted from other farmers and nobody would hire you. And then we couldn't work. And we wouldn't have anything to eat.
BILL MOYERS: Were your parents subjected to humiliation, the racial humiliation, the racial snubs and epithets?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, the verbal mistreatment of my mom, and, was something that's very, was very hard to take. A young man wants to defend his mom. And you love your mom and you love your dad. And you don't want to see them treated with disrespect and less than a human being. And when you watch your parents being treated that way, it makes you angry. It makes you want to do something. It makes you want to fight. And at some point, when I got to be about 12 or 13 years old, I decided that if-- when I grew up, if I can do something about this, I'm going to do it.
BILL MOYERS: That young?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well I started thinking about it at that time. But I felt kind of like, "How in the heck do you go around, you know, changing these things? It seems so overwhelming and the parties, not only the farmers we thought were big. But when you look at the corporations who bought the crops, the manufacturers, and now the retailers, who are directly buying from many large farms, it seems so overwhelming and, like so powerful. And you almost have to decide that if you fight these people it's kind of like suicidal. They're going to blacklist you in the work. They're going to discredit you in the community. They're going to do everything they can to make you a pariah of society. And I think that at some point, you make that decision. Said, "Okay, if they want to do that, okay. But that's not going to keep me shut up."
BILL MOYERS: What did you do?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, I went to college. I got through my first year two semesters for $800, out of state tuition, living with my grandparents. And I borrowed half of that money from a local bank in Ohio. And had to work the following summer to work that off. But--
BILL MOYERS: Doing what?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Picking cherries up in Michigan. But it was my experience in South Texas, the way, to watch my grandparents, the way they were treated, and my aunts. The way-- I mean, didn't make any sense. This was 1965. And 80 percent of the population are Mexican-American. And every judge, every mayor, every county commissioner, everybody, they were all white. I said, "Now how is this?"
And you watch the condescension. Well, that's the way my grandparents were treated. That's the way my aunts were treated. And that was in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. The folk singers were singing protest songs. I learned and gleaned everything that I was hearing. And so I went to volunteer for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland, Ohio.
And I lived in a tenement house with an African American family. And my job was to ride shotgun with another man with a police scanner in the car. And our job was to respond to police calls and document police brutality cases in the black neighborhoods. Well, I go home every night to that tenement house. And I'd sleep on this guy's couch.
Well, one morning he asked me, "Son, I've got to ask you a question." I say, "Yeah, go head." He says, "Well, you're the only person I've ever had here as a volunteer that hasn't complained about the rats. Why is that?" So I told him my rat story, that I grew up with the rats in labor camps and the old farmhouse we lived on the county line in Northwest Ohio. There was the couch that in the living room was my bed and my brother's bed. He slept on one end. And I slept on the other end. And there was, that couch was pushed up against a window overlooking the front porch. And there was a crack underneath the pane. And that's where the rats would come in at night.
So at night, you'd hear the scratching along the back of that couch. And we knew there was a rat going to get up on the top up there. And we knew that the rat had to jump on the seat where we sleeping before he got on the floor. So when we'd hear the scratching on the back of that couch, we'd kick each other and pull the blanket taut. To make kind of like a trampoline for the rat.
And the rat would jump down on the blanket. And when we'd hear that, we'd go with our fists underneath, boom, like that, to see how far we could make the rat fly. And that was our game, to see how far we could make the rat fly.
But the man says, he looked kind of stunned, and he said, "Good Lord, son, why aren't you doing something for your own people?" And that's what provoked the thought, "I need to go back and start organizing the migrant workers and try to follow the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement to speak for people and organize them so they can speak for themselves."
BILL MOYERS: You make me think of a video that I saw the other day of a speech you made after one of your colleagues in FLOC had been murdered in Mexico. Let me play that video for our audience.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ at Labor Notes Conference, 2008: I’m talking to you as organizers. Look, we’re not doing this because the objective—catch me carefully here, the object is not to win. That’s not the objective. The objective is to do the right and good thing. See because, if you decide not to do anything, because it’s too hard or too impossible, well then nothing will be done. And when you die, when you’re on your death bed, you’re going to say to yourself, “I wish I would’ve tried to do something.” So if you go and do the right and good thing now, and if you do it long enough, good things will happen.
BILL MOYERS: How did you come to that strategy?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: I figured that, well, we can just lay down and just let matters overwhelm us and take us in and whine and complain about how bad things are, or get up and do something and start speaking to those things that are upon you and those things that are evil, and the misdeeds upon you, and just do it and don't stop, and whatever happens happens. But it's better, as Emiliano Zapata said, it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
BILL MOYERS: And your parents understood that?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: My mom was the strong one. She was a charismatic Catholic. She would say, "Only God knows," in Spanish, you know? And,"Whatever the Lord decides."
How can we have a God, you know, that'd keep us in this situation. And I was always angry about it. I would be very puzzled that my mom would have that kind of faith in light of our reality that we had, at that time.
BILL MOYERS: How did you reconcile the reality that you were dealing with and the faith your mother was expressing in a benevolent and good God?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, I didn't hear an audible word from God. But it came to me that if he were to speak words, it would come out like this. "Look, had you not gone through all those trials and all those problems, I would not now have a spokesperson to speak for the people." And now I can take that experience and try to verbalize it and try to explain it to the world so that other people who are in that situation can have some visibility in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of the public, the lawmakers, other people.
They need to have a voice. And I can't speak for all of them. But I can help open the door and organize them so they can speak for themselves. And so that's the way it was reconciled. And more importantly, I think that the anger issue which any young man's going to have growing up in that situation, is not just… is just not the issue of getting even anymore.
BILL MOYERS: But it was, at one time, wasn't it?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: It was.
BILL MOYERS: You felt, "I was going to get even with these--"
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Yes, right. These guys who'd taken advantage of us. But when you come to know the Lord, you begin to understand that what true reconciliation is. And true reconciliation is tough. Because if you're angry and just want to fight, there's a winner and there's a loser. But when there's true reconciliation, is you bring the harmony of the opposition into some way in which you can live in this world together. Because that's really what we're trying to do. And this is really what we want.
BILL MOYERS: I've read that you've even said, "We need to love these businessmen."
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, in scripture, there's a principle about hating the sin and loving the sinner. And a person can be running a corporation. And I say this to them. I told the Campbell Soup executives, I told the Heinz executives, I told the Dean Foods executives, I told the Mt. Olive executive, the CEO, and I'm telling Reynolds America right now, "You're a good man. But the system that you operate is wrong. And it's built on inequity. And you need to fix it, because you have the power to do so." And I keep telling them and find ways to get their attention until they do something about it.
BILL MOYERS: And how do you get their attention?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: We campaign. We boycott. We protest. We march. We go in front of retail stores and organize the consumers who are our best ally.
BILL MOYERS: The consumer?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: The consumer, because there's the growing conscience in this country for safe food, good food produced under just conditions treating their labor and the environment correctly. And thank God for the consumers who are conscious about those things, for their own sake, and for their family's sake.
That's a huge power there, in the public, among the people. We can tell the retail stores, "Tell, you've got to tell Reynolds America to negotiate an agreement with FLOC to guarantee the rights of workers at the bottom of their supply chain." They can do that. They can fix that. They have the power to do that.
BILL MOYERS: What is the issue right now with R.J. Reynolds? How long has this campaign been going on?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Been going on almost five years.
BILL MOYERS: Five years!
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Yeah. So…
BILL MOYERS: What's the issue?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: The issue is that the inequality that they've designed in their supply chain, when they do the pricing of the tobacco, it really amounts to economic marginalization of the small family farmer.
So if the family farmer is marginally, is financially marginalized the farm worker's going to be in a terrible situation trying to be employed by that farmer, by that supplier. So it's like one of us throwing a bone at two dogs and let them fight over who's going to get the better of it. And that's really the fight between farmers and migrant farm workers in this country today. And it's the wrong fight.
It shouldn't be happening. The farmers and the farm workers should be talking to this-- to the retail, people, big corporations and the manufacturers about just pricing in the industry so there can be some equity for those people to be able to make a living and to be able to feed, educate, and clothe their families.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, R.J. Reynolds refused for years to meet with you, didn't they?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Yes, they have.
BILL MOYERS: What did they say?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: They said, "We don't, we're not the employers."
BILL MOYERS: They said the employers are down there, the small farmer.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Yeah, right. But I've just put a proposal down to them in writing. And I'm asking them to do three things. One, stop relying on human trafficking for your labor supply.
Number two, end the squalor in the labor camps, because you can't talk about health and safety without talking about sanitary facilities where they're living, where they're housing these workers. For instance, in tobacco one of the biggest threats to a worker's health is the nicotine ingestion, nicotine poisoning of his body.
And you have to wash that off every night. You have to wear a change of clothes every day. So you've got to have good washing facilities, good shower facilities. And three, you got to end the state of fear of those workers being able to complain about matters that many of them are life-threatening issues like, for instance, North Carolina leads the nation in heat stroke deaths.
BILL MOYERS: In what?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Heat stroke. And many of them happen in agriculture. And workers can't be afraid to ask for water. And because it's terribly--
BILL MOYERS: You mean they can be afraid to ask for water now?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: They're afraid to take breaks. I went to work in a tobacco farm about three summers ago now, figuring if I'm going to represent tobacco workers, I need to go out and do the work to see what they go through. So I moved into a labor camp. And worked a six-day work week. And believe me, the major thing you fought was the heat, the hydration issue, and nicotine ingestion.
You had to wear clothing buttoned up to your neck. And in the morning, you'd wear plastic bags, trash bags, made into ponchos so that it keeps the wet leaves, the dew that's on the leaf or rainwater that's on it, that water has nicotine in it. So when it gets on your body, you ingest it through the skin.
A researcher just said that a worker that handled tobacco-- that they ingest the equivalent of having, smoking 22 cigarettes in a day. So you fight the nicotine ingestion and you fight the dehydration. And it-- Bill, it's impossible to keep hydrated. Because it's over 100 degrees. The humidity is high. And some of the-- particularly the rows that are very long-- and I walked down one end of one row and back before-- where the water supply was.
The farm I worked had-- great water supply. But by the time you went down there and back, it's two hours. And by that time, you're soaked with sweat. And it's impossible to keep totally hydrated in the field, no matter how much water you drank. I didn't get hydrated till I got back to the labor camp at night.
BILL MOYERS: Give me a sense, a brief picture of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco supply chain. How does it work?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well the company contracts the tobacco from independent family farms. They're mostly fairly small, anywhere from a dozen to 20, 30 employees. And the size of the acreage is a lot smaller than the bigger operators.
But the R.J. Reynolds contracts that tobacco directly with those farms. So they may have any number of farmers contracted to them to grow the required tobacco that they need produced in North Carolina. And that's a pretty direct contract. And then, of course, the farmers then, in turn, they hire either guest workers, undocumented workers through the use of labor contractors and crew leaders.
And a lot of times the crew leaders are the ones that have the economic relationship directly with the workers. So you've got the company. You've got the growers. And you might have a level of crew leaders, labor contractors, and then the workers. So all those parties have to come together at some table.
BILL MOYERS: And you represent the tobacco cutters, the guys--
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: The workers.
BILL MOYERS: --right down there in the--
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: On the bottom.
BILL MOYERS: What do they make?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: That depends. Believe it or not, the guest workers make more than the undocumented people.
BILL MOYERS: Define the difference between a guest worker and an undocumented worker.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: The worker comes with a visa, an H-2A visa. And the Department of Labor requires those employers to pay prevailing wage. This year, it's $9.68 an hour for the--
BILL MOYERS: $9.68 an hour?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: In North Carolina.
BILL MOYERS: If you have the visa?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: If you have the visa.
BILL MOYERS: If you don't have the visa?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: If you don’t have the visa, who knows?
BILL MOYERS: You're undocumented.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: You're undocumented, you don't know. Particularly if you're working for a labor contractor. They're only obligated to pay, you know, the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: We've seen cases where the farmer pays the crew leader $7.25 an hour for all the hours reported for his crew. And we've discovered that the crew leader takes a cut off of that. So they're really making under minimum wage and sometimes even less. We've had cases, which we tried to report to the Department of Labor and the local law enforcement agencies, workers held pretty much in captivity.
We found a crew of 50 workers living in three house trailers. Only one had a working stove. Two had only working toilets. And many of them were sleeping on the floors like sardines. And three of them escaped and came to us for help.
Workers are afraid to complain. They're afraid to come out and file a complaint because--
BILL MOYERS: Because?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: --of retaliation.
BILL MOYERS: They’ll be sent home? Or they’ll be punished in some other way?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Exactly. Or the crew leader knows where their families live in Mexico. They’re afraid for their families, not only here, but their afraid for their families in Mexico. And it's true the-- some of the H-2A workers, not in the people we--
BILL MOYERS: H-2A that's--
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: The guest workers from Mexico. We know of cases in other areas that-- with other labor contractors that recruit workers in Mexico that sure don't do things by the book.
BILL MOYERS: At one time, you were-- seeking what you call freedom visas, which simply granted workers the right to move across national borders the way corporations can, do. Are you still an advocate of the freedom visa?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, that was a response to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
BILL MOYERS: NAFTA, signed by President Clinton in 1993.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Right. Yeah, see that devastated the Mexican countryside. Just in the commodity of corn. Which is a staple in Mexico. Everybody grows corn in Mexico. And they grow it for their local use, for themselves. And then the excess, they tried to sell it in the local market. So when NAFTA opened the borders to North American corn, those small corner farmers in Mexico couldn't help to compete with U.S. farmers. They're highly mechanized and highly subsidized.
We have the one of the largest farm aid programs in the world. So the Mexican farmers can't compete with subsidized US farmers. And they take over the corn market in Mexico driving these people off their land. The Carnegie Endowment issued a report on the commodity of corn. And now they're saying that it's displaced two million corn farmers in Mexico.
And we complain about these same guys coming over our border now. I say, "Well, if you want them to stop coming over, it'd be a good idea. But maybe we should stop displacing them, so they wouldn't have to come here in the first place." And so I think it's important that if we're going to be-- talk about free trade and free markets, which both Republicans and Democrats are big advocates of, then we should talk about the labor market as a market also.
And what drives markets? Law of supply and demand. So if you're going to allow the labor to be a free market, as well, you got to allow labor to flow freely, the way you do other commodities, under your philosophical thinking. And in order to do that, you got to have a visa so that these workers can travel freely within the countries that signed these agreements, that created this problem in the first place.
Isn't that a market? Isn't labor a market? And shouldn't it be treated as a free market? And if it would be allowed to flow freely like they want commodities to do, that'll do the same. And let the markets saturate themselves.
But the one caveat to that would be that it would-- the workers would be given their labor rights. They cannot restrict their labor rights. The freedom to be able to have association, to organize themselves, and that that be recognized. Because that is a very-- a fundamental American principle that we try to marginalize people by denying that right to a group of people.
BILL MOYERS: After your colleague-- I think he was the manager of your office in Monterrey was killed back in, what, 2007? I could tell from the speeches I saw you delivering then, particularly that one to the-- that I showed earlier, that you were really angry. You said, our organization is “a threat to the diabolic elixir of demagogues, oligarchies, unfair trade, and financial services industry."
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: I think that's the truth. And yes I'm angry. You know, but you have to be careful when you're angry. Scripture tells us that there is such a thing as righteous anger, but do not sin in your anger. To hold those people accountable for the decisions that make-- that have the effect like that on other people. And I'm afraid that this country needs a shaking up in that regard. We-- it's very difficult to see what's happening in our country today.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean what's happening?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, the marginalizing democracy. People that speak for themselves. I mean, isn't that why we fought the British crown, that we had a right to speak for ourselves and not have things imposed upon us without our representation? Isn't that why we fought a Civil Rights Movement, so that people could have a right to vote, to have to speak, to represent themselves?
And now they're cutting those things off.
BILL MOYERS: When you say that your adversary is a diabolical system-- oligarchy and money and all of that, you're fighting back. You're outnumbered.
But you keep fighting with a ragged army of marginal people?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, that's better than fighting with nothing. And Cesar Chavez described it best in the times I spent a lot of-- had a lot of discussion with Cesar. He says, well you know, the rich have a lot to oppose us. They got a lot of money. And farm work-- we farm workers, we don't have anything.
In the back of my mind, I'm thinking, well, anything becomes a powerful weapon. Because when you don't have anything, you don't have anything to lose. So what you're investing in the fight is nothing but time. And the opposition is investing money. And the way Cesar put it was, "There's a lot more time than there is money. And money's going to run out before time. So as long as we don't give up, something has got to happen."
So it doesn't take a whole lot to fight. You just got to be willing to do it. And the problem with a lot of people is they don't want to do it, because they think they're going to lose something. They got-- they think they got too much to lose. Well, in that regard, you already lost before you started.
BILL MOYERS: How long have you been doing this?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Since 1967. 45 years.
BILL MOYERS: Someone told me you don't even have a pension. That you don't have a retirement.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: No, I sure don't.
BILL MOYERS: How old are you now?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Sixty-six.
BILL MOYERS: And you're not showing any signs of slowing down or trying to figure out what you're going to do next?
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: I thought about that at one time. And a friend of mine recently passed away, an attorney friend who had good money, offered to fund a pension for me. I said, "Jack, I can't do that, because the farm workers don't have any. And if I got something and they didn't, they're going to say, 'Well, it's nice for you to go out and talk about fighting the big corporations when-- and you're all set in your life.’” So it doesn't make it much like you're sharing too much of the sacrifice of the people that are trying to organize.
But literally, what it comes down to-- again, that the spiritual foundation that I got from my mom. Matthew 6:26-- this is Jesus talking. He says, why do you worry about what you're going to eat tomorrow? And says, look at the birds of the air, they no sow nor reap, nor they store their grains in barn. Yet, my heavenly father feeds them. How much more am I going to care for you?
And look at the lilies of the field. If you're wondering about what you're going to wear tomorrow the lilies of the field, not even Solomon, in all its splendor is dressed as one of these. That you're going to be taken care of. And I-- that's my pension right there.
BILL MOYERS: Jesus also said, as you have quoted, "Love thy neighbor. Turn the other cheek." But he also throw the moneychangers out of the temple. So I think he probably embraced both philosophies.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Well, I remind people of that, as well. And that sometimes you got to speak to the injustice. It's the same thing as Jesus speaking to the storm and calming the waters. And everybody's afraid of the storm and the waters around them. But he told the disciples, you know, "Oh ye of little faith. You know, you speak to the mountain, it'll move."
And so I think this is what we're doing, Bill. We're speaking to those mountains. Those mountains of wealth and capital that needs to be humanized. For them to use that wealth and that capital for good things, for people, to develop our nation and make it strong. Because when you-- this whole immigration reform, when you have 11 million people without papers living in the shadows and you have exploited farm workers on the bottom, I think that makes our country weak.
How can we go around the world and saying that we're the bastions and the light of freedom throughout the world, when we marginalize people within our own country and our own society? And it says in scripture, "A house divided in itself cannot stand." And at some point, it'll come back to hound us.
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me you've not only listened to Jesus, you've also listened to Martin Luther King. You remember he said, "When you impede the rich man's ability to make money, anything is negotiable."
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: I think this has been one of the cornerstones of our thinking in every campaign we design. It's the only time I've ever was with Dr. King in that winter of '68, I believe. And I got an invitation to come to Atlanta and help plan the Poor People's Campaign. This was very early in my organizing career. And I went to Atlanta and got to meet some of the other Latino leaders and Indian leaders that he brought in for the planning.
And I, being innocent not knowing that history was before my very eyes-- so that afternoon, when I was there, it was like 3:30 in the afternoon. And Dr. King comes in with a column of ministers with Ralph Abernathy on one side and Andy Young on the other side and a young Jesse Jackson in tow. And he was deciding in this Poor People's Campaign that the question of inequity in America was not just Black-- that it was a class issue. It wasn't just a Black issue. To us, that was important. The discussion came to that question about how do we as poor people, we're talkin' about organizing a poor people's campaign to take on the powers in Washington, the monolithic economic institutions of our country to bring equity to the poor people in this country. That how do we as poor people who have nothing-- who don't have the money and the power and the politicians in our hip pocket compel the world's largest, the richest people to sit down and talk to us? And that was the response. That I remember it was so burned into my brain that “When you impede the rich man’s ability to make money, anything is negotiable.” And we have followed that principle and all the campaigns we've designed. And we keep looking until we find it.
BILL MOYERS: Baldemar Velásquez, thank you very much for being with me and thank you for the work you do.
BALDEMAR VELÁSQUEZ: Thank you, Bill. It's been an honor being here.
BILL MOYERS: Baldemar Velásquez and R.J. Reynolds were to hold another negotiation this past week. It was postponed amidst rumors the company is lobbying the state’s right-wing dominated legislature for protection against the union.
Velasquez says FLOC will fight on – they’ve never lost yet.
Farm workers aren’t the only ones being exploited. Virtually every low wage earner in America is taking it in the neck.
Walmart -- with revenues last year of nearly $470 billion -- is threatening to abandon plans to build three giant stores in Washington, D.C., Why? Because the city council insists they pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour. Keep in mind that if adjusted for productivity, the federal minimum wage should be almost twice that amount. Walmart is in a tizzy over the Washington living wage demands, despite the heirs of founder Sam Walton already socking away almost $116 billion.
You have to ask, how much is enough when no matter what you have is never enough?
Which brings us to McDonald’s. The fast food giant’s new CEO Don Thompson was just awarded a pay package of nearly $14 million.
Perhaps that helps explain why McDonald’s has set up a website with visa to show its fulltime workers how to get by on the minimum wage it pays, which turns out to be a little over $1100 a month.
All you have to do, they say, is get a second job, and not spend any money on food because presumably you can live on the crumbs from Don Thompson’s table.
That’s a lot of leftover Chicken McNuggets.
Clearly, the owners of capital are determined to wring even greater wealth from the sweat and sacrifice of workers, deepening our spin into economic inequality -- until, and unless, in solidarity, those workers stand up like Baldemar Velásquez and demand a fair wage for a hard day’s work.
BILL MOYERS: As the world knows, Trayvon Martin was stalked and shot to death by an armed vigilante. The police report that night called it an unnecessary killing to prevent unlawful act.
We will never know the full story because the victim has been forever silenced. That's the thing about guns, they have the last word.
Martin's killer George Zimmerman pleaded self-defense and was acquitted thanks, in part, to Florida's Stand Your Ground law. That law was the handiwork of the national rifle association, whose lobbyist, Marion Hammer, is seen standing there beside Governor Jeb Bush when he signed it In 2005.
Ever since, members of the right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, have been pushing versions of bills like it in state capitols across the country. Twenty-one states have followed suit.
To understand what's happening, read this important new book, The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It.
The author is Tom Diaz. He’s a veteran, former N.R.A member, and worked as an assistant managing editor at the conservative Washington Times. Trained as a lawyer he served as a senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center before turning to full-time writing and speaking on guns and their impact on America.
Tom Diaz, welcome.
TOM DIAZ: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: I heard you say earlier that the real winners in the Florida tragedy are the NRA and the gun industry. How so?
TOM DIAZ: Well, for two reasons, I think. One, it, in their eyes validates the whole concept of this, what they call Stand Your Ground law. Look, Zimmerman stood his ground and nothing bad happened to him, so that validates the idea that you're going to need these things to protect yourself. Secondly, it increases the market which is what ultimately this is all about. Now they have a case to say, don't you wish you had one of these things in your pocket if some guy was beating your head in the sidewalk? So, one hand reinforces the other.
BILL MOYERS: The conservatives are claiming that Stand Your Ground was not a factor in this case. The "National Review Online” says the media is quote, "inventing reasons to blame the verdict on Florida's gun laws,” when in fact the Stand Your Ground law wasn't even used in Zimmerman's defense.
TOM DIAZ: It wasn't used technically, that I would agree with. But the Stand Your Ground law changed the circumstances in Florida, under which a person might go about armed as did Zimmerman. And so that even if the lawyers, I think quite wisely the defense lawyers, chose not to make this an issue, it encouraged the kind of carrying of weapons and the thought that, well, I can use this. The law of self-defense which goes back to ancient times to the Talmud, it's absolutely clear that a person who's being threatened, whose own life is being threatened as the right, the moral, ethical, legal right to if necessary kill a person trying to kill them, that's not a question.
What we did develop though in our common law were restraints about when you might use that. One had a duty to retreat generally, avoid violence if you can. Why take another human life if there's a way out of the conflict? There was an exception to that, and that was in one's own home. This is the so-called Castle doctrine. That's where the word, the phrase, stand your ground, came into legal significance.
If you're in your own home and I come in and clearly are going to do you harm, you have no duty to retreat. If necessary you can take my life. What's happened here is that the NRA, Marion Hammer, and the people in Florida and gun advocates generally have twisted this language so that now they've taken this concept of stand your ground into the public space. And they've tried to say, well, the law hasn't changed. In fact the law has changed. It was very carefully crafted to reduce mayhem, to reduce the chance that somebody's going to be killed and now turned into a situation that practically begs for someone to be killed if I feel threatened.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this is what happened to George Zimmerman?
TOM DIAZ: Yes, I have to say I don't think George Zimmerman is a victim, I think he was a tool.
BILL MOYERS: A tool?
TOM DIAZ: He was the perfect marketing target of the gun industry, small handgun carried around, if you're going to buy, no pun intended, at Target, which was apparently his destination, don't you need your gun to protect yourself? This is exactly what the NRA and the gun industry want to do because it increases sales. And there's a whole, within the industry themselves they talk about how wonderful this concealed carry, Stand Your Ground laws are for selling small handguns exactly like Zimmerman had.
BILL MOYERS: But there are dangerous people out there, they will tell you that.
TOM DIAZ: We have known there are dangerous people since medieval times. And we've understood there's a problem. And we've said you can defend yourself when necessary. That hasn't changed one bit. What has changed is the mix so that we now have people going around with more deadly weapons.
It's something that I think that most average Americans simply have no understanding of the mindset of the diminishing number of people who own firearms and who own them specifically to carry out on the street, nevertheless they have a mindset. And that mindset is danger lurks everywhere and you better have your gun to protect yourself.
Goes to the extreme of having, you need a gun in your bathroom because what if you're going to the bathroom and your gun is in the living room. You need a gun in your ankle because suppose your drop your gun that you carry in your waist. This is not an exaggeration. I read regularly the fan magazines of the gun business. And it's, I say it's like reading these bodice-ripper romance novels without any good parts.
The two things they talk about more than anything else are military style assault rifles and handguns for self-defense. Almost every issue of every magazine fuels this feeling that you better have a gun, and hey, here's the greatest new gun in the industry.
BILL MOYERS: You're saying this is a business strategy?
TOM DIAZ: Oh yeah, the gun industry admits it. One of the prolific writers in the industry magazine, this is not fan magazines now. This is a magazine where the industry talks to itself, called it cashing in. Basically, I'm paraphrasing here, but, the exact phrase, but he said if you're not cashing in on concealed carry laws, you're not going to make money.
Article after article in the industry publication says these laws are going to boost your sales of handguns and specific kinds of handguns that are going to bring you out of the slump. And not only that, both in the case of assault rifles and handguns one writer described the customer as a walking cluster, a walking cluster of after-market sales.
You're going to need special holsters. Now they're even saying you're going to need a special coat for the winter or the summer to conceal your gun. So the after-market and accessories are where, and as a matter of fact, it's where, as in a lot of consumer products, it's where the big profits are.
And what it appears to be is that it's not so many new buyers as it is old buyers buying more and more guns. The average number of guns owned by gun owners has gone up and up and up. The average number of households and individuals who say they own guns has been going down. So what we have is fewer and fewer people buying more and more guns.
BILL MOYERS: How do you reconcile what you've just said about fewer and fewer people actually owning guns with the increasing power of the National Rifle Association? You write in your book that the NRA has gone to extreme lengths to draw a veil of secrecy over the facts, the facts surrounding its impact, on our lives.
TOM DIAZ: Well, the gun industry learned a lot from the cigarette industry. When the cigarette industry was sued one of the things, probably the most important thing that people who litigated against the cigarette industry, was the internal papers of the cigarette industry where we found out these guys not only knew they were killing people, they went to lengths to cover up the fact the they were killing people.
The gun industry was terrified when some litigators said, hey, why don't we do to the gun industry what we did to the cigarette industry and other evil industries? So they got Congress to pass a law do away with lawsuits again, it's very hard to sue the gun industry. But there were two other corollaries that led up to that.
One was preventing the Centers for Disease Control which is our public health research arm, the source of almost all of our data about everything from measles to firearms death, they decided, a congressman by the name of Jay Dickey said, hey, we don't want them doing this research on guns. He originally wanted to shut down the whole unit that does all research. And finally they compromised and said, okay, you just can't spend any money on guns.
So we have told the only national public health research agency, you can look at anything else. You can look at measles, you can look at workplace accidents, but don't look at guns. So that's one. Number two, there's an agency a law enforcement agency, a federal law enforcement agency called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. I'll call it ATF. ATF does something, it’s called tracing crime guns, which means if a gun is used in a crime or is found at a crime scene or illegally possessed, they trace that gun from its manufacturer, because Federal records are, the manufacturers are required to keep records, to the fist point of its public sale.
And then if they can they follow it to the point which it was either found or used in a crime. The value of that in terms of law enforcement is law enforcement investigators can tell was this gun used in another crime or crimes, how did this person get the gun, was it possibly sold by gun traffickers?
From a public health point of view the value of this data, and we're talking about millions upon millions of cases investigated, that is, traced, by ATF, is that we can answer some of the questions that now are just veiled. For example, when I worked in this field people would call me and say, well, how many Glock pistols were used in shootings in the last ten years? And I would say, nobody knows. And we don't know.
We could know if we could access the ATF database. The same thing when the horrible shooting in Newtown, people would say, well, how many of these Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifles have been used in shootings or crimes? We only know anecdotally. But if we could get that ATF data we would know precisely. So it would answer questions about do these designs make a difference? Are specific kinds of guns implicated in crime?
So that's the ATF contribution. If you take those two together, public health, law enforcement, you have a very good picture of what is the impact not only of guns generally in the United States, but of specific types, calibers, manufacturers. The industry is terrified of this.
BILL MOYERS: How is it they've kept Congress from giving us that basic information? How do you explain the power of the industry over our political process? They own our political process now.
TOM DIAZ: Well, I think there are two answers to that. And it doesn't give me any joy to say it. One, the, one of the things the NRA has a program called Refuse To Be A Victim. The American, certainly the American national, and I'll say liberal, progressive, whatever you want to say, political establishment has chosen to be a victim.
They have given up on guns. They've bought into a thing called the third way which is somehow there's this mythical common ground we can reach with the NRA or the gun industry, and let's not talk about gun control. They call it the third rail of politics, so you have a victim here. On the other hand it must be said that the National Rifle Association has what every politician wishes they had, that is they have somebody in every congressional district.
Even if it's only one or two people they have somebody. When Wayne LaPierre in his palatial headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia pushes the button, the talking points go out, the phones or the emails arrive in Congress. The other side is not that organized. People who are gun control advocates have typically been small groups in Los Angeles, Washington, New York. They can't respond to that. That I hope, I think is changing.
BILL MOYERS: Tom, we're out of time right now, but let's continue this discussion online.
TOM DIAZ: Great, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: The book is The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It. Tom Diaz, thanks for joining me.
TOM DIAZ: My pleasure, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Coming up on Moyers & Company, fifty years after the historic march on Washington, we go back to the scene with civil rights hero John Lewis, the youngest man to speak on that historic August day and the last of the speakers still living…
That’s next week on Moyers & Company.
I’ll see you then.