Farmworkers Target Tobacco Giant After Deaths in the Fields
Tobacco kills in many ways. Long before that first puff lies yet more lethality, hidden in the fields where the tobacco leaf is grown. Last year alone, heat stroke claimed nine North Carolina field workers.
A new force is joining tobacco pickers as they go about their dangerous, backbreaking work, one that promises to organize the workers to change those conditions. Members of The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) voted this summer to undertake a campaign against Reynolds American, the parent company to RJ Reynolds, America’s second-largest tobacco retailer.
CAMPAIGN HEATING UP
Reynolds is responding like many corporations have when faced with a farmworker campaign: by trying to ignore it. Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Toledo, Ohio-based union, asked for a meeting with Reynolds CEO Susan Ivey on September 6, but his request has been answered with silence. Meanwhile, in the fields just beyond Reynolds’ Winston-Salem headquarters, 32,000 workers gather another crop that gets rolled into 19 RJR products from Camel to Kool.
The recent farmworker deaths have increased the urgency of the campaign.
“Workers we talk to say the hardest part of tobacco is the summer heat,” said Rachel Lovis, an organizer at FLOC’s North Carolina office. “Workers often aren’t allowed a break, and the chances of heat sickness are high.”
Unorganized and undocumented, tobacco pickers are paid $5.35 an hour by growers who sell their crop to RJR, although workers are often not paid on time or at all. Others face harassment or firings for requesting time off or seniority benefits.
The campaign has put RJR under new scrutiny. Glossy public relations saturate the Reynolds American website, which touts the company’s commitment to employee benefits.
Along with a “comprehensive health and welfare benefits package,” RJR crows about its paid holiday and sick-day provisions, as well as a range of “mentoring programs and company-sponsored diversity councils.” But these protections and benefits are not available to workers in the fields, without whom the tobacco industry couldn’t function.
Most of the people working these jobs are migrant laborers, making organizing more arduous.
“We get a lot of hesitancy from workers who fear getting called out by immigration authorities,” Lovis said. “It’s a matter of building trust between organizers and workers.”
An alliance of labor and faith organizations, brought together through the National Farmworker Ministry (NFM), is focusing on health risks posed by picking tobacco. Their visits with migrant workers reveal stories of overcrowded housing facilities which are often located next to fields sprayed by pesticides, making harmful exposure an issue even after the work day.
“The growers don’t provide proper washing machines for workers to clean the pesticides from their garments after a day in the fields,” Lovis said.
Tobacco workers are especially at risk because of continual contact with nicotine, which compounds the risk of heat stroke by raising body temperature considerably. A lack of health benefits or workers’ compensation makes these conditions more dangerous, and NFM statistics show that field workers are more susceptible to heat stress, skin disease, and tuberculosis.
NFM works alongside the union to integrate people of faith into the North Carolina campaign.
“We have delegations out in the fields on Sundays talking about the effort,” said Alex Jones, an organizer with NFM. “We share a meal with workers, and learn about each others’ lives.” NFM also provides logistical support and transportation to farmworkers. These on-the-ground networks are combined with a nationwide letter-writing campaign to pressure the corporation to meet with FLOC.
Selling one-third of all cigarettes bought in the United States, Reynolds revenue last year was in excess of $8.5 billion. That largess has not extended into Winston-Salem’s outlying farmworker communities—a reality FLOC is intent on changing.
“The campaign doesn’t mean anything unless it brings real change for the worker at the bottom,” Velasquez says.
HISTORY OF SUCCESS
For decades, the union has turned those words into deeds. In the Toledo office, organizer Michael Hale pointed to a large red poster from 1983, featuring FLOC’s 553-mile march from Toledo to Camden, New Jersey to publicize their boycott of Campbell’s.
It took years, but by the early 1980s the union had shed light on horrific farm conditions hidden by the company’s wholesome public image. In 1986, FLOC won an unprecedented contract to incorporate tomato and pickle workers into the union ranks.
“It was the first three-way agreement that brought farmworkers, growers, and the parent company to the negotiating table,” Hale said. The campaign also resulted in the creation of the Dunlop Commission, which forged a channel for newly unionized workers to address grievances in the fields.
The victory at Campbell’s showed that corporations could be held accountable all the way down their supply chains, in the farms where migrant communities live and work. FLOC drew these connections again in the 1990s, pushing into North Carolina to unionize pickle workers.
A victorious boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle ended in 2004 when contracts were signed between farmworkers, the North Carolina Growers Association, and the company.
FLOC’s victory not only incorporated guest workers with temporary H2A visas into the union ranks once they got to the United States but also set up organizing centers south of the border to advocate for Mexicans seeking guest-worker status within a corrupted application process.
The union now has 7,700 members in North Carolina who are protected under a contract that ensures wages at $9.02 per hour, worker’s compensation, bereavement leaves, and free transportation and free housing services. For many people in the fields, the benefits of organizing have become clear.
On October 28, FLOC workers and supporters marched to get the attention of RJR’s executives. In fact, the rally led right to Reynolds American’s front door in Winston-Salem, the initial steps of what may be a drawn-out fight against an industry long known for its foot-dragging.
“We will show them that they’ve gotten more than they bargained for,” Jones said. “Our voices aren’t going away.”