Farm workers’ union protests Reynolds’ labor practices for third straight year

by Keith Barber

‘­ At the conclusion of the Farm LaborOrganizing Committee’s marchthrough downtown Winston-Salem on’­May 7, an impromptu dance competitionbroke out beneath the large oak trees surroundingLloyd Presbyterian Church. Movingto the beat provided by Cakalak Thunder — thestreet drum corps that accompanied the estimated120 marchers from a noontime rally at OnePark Vista past Reynolds American’s headquartersto the church grounds off Chestnut Street— the marchers appeared to be in a celebratorymood. Baldemar Velasquez, president and founderof the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, orFLOC, delivered an impassioned message,telling the marchers they are the future of themovement that is demanding better workingconditions for the state’s farm workers that harvesttobacco for Reynolds American, or RAI.“There is something at work here that wecan’t see, there is something at work here thatwe can’t feel, there is something at work herethat we can’t touch — all that justice that weseek is already won in [heaven],” Velasquezsaid. “All we need is for some soldiers to walkit out, to make what is in heaven come upon theearth, to make that reality here on earth materializein the physical realm.” Earlier in the day, more than 40 FLOC“soldiers” had entered the Reynolds Americanshareholders meeting in downtown Winston-Salem to support a shareholder proposal onhuman rights protocols for the company thatdirectly relates to its treatment of farm workersdomestically and around the globe. Accordingto Reynolds American’s proxy statement, fiveshareholders submitted the proposal titled,“Create Human Rights Protocols for theCompany and Its Suppliers.” The proposal wascrafted by supporters of FLOC’s campaign,Velasquez said. “In the USA, while RAI doesn’t directly hirefarmworkers, it contracts with suppliers whodo,” the shareholder proposal states. “Whentheir farmworkers are unorganized, basic workerrights can be easily violated. This abuse isaggravated when they are undocumented.”The proposal also states that despiteReynolds American’s statements it has hiredindependent monitors to ensure it is not breakingany US or international laws, “its US supplierscontinue to hire undocumented workers.” The proposal also cites violations of humanrights in Malawi, a key supplier of tobacco forReynolds American, and calls for the creationof an enforcement mechanism to ensure growersare protecting farm workers’ basic rights.“Support for this proposal will help ensureour profits and dividends are not being realizedby exploiting ‘the least’ of our brothers and sisters,”states the proposal. “Please support it so‘good news’ may come to those who are poorwhom we bear responsibility as shareholders.”The Rev. Michael Crosby, who helped introducethe shareholders human rights proposalat the May 7 meeting, said the vast chasmbetween the people at the top of ReynoldsAmerican’s supply chain and those at the bottomunderscores the importance of FLOC’scampaign. “The core issue here is justice to farm workersand because there is injustice, you get thishuge disparity between what the top executivesare making on the back of the farm workers,”Crosby said. “Those who have are gettingmore. Those who have little are getting eventhat taken away from them, including their rightto organize.”Velasquez said most of the state’s tobaccoworkers are earning $7.25 an hour — minimumwage — while Reynolds executives are makingmillions in compensation. In 2009, Ivey earned$16.4 million in compensation, an increase ofnearly $7 million from her 2008 compensationpackage. The measure was soundly defeated butgained support from more than 10 percent ofthe company’s shareholders, which means it iseligible for another vote at next year’s meeting.After the presentation of the proposal, CEOSusan Ivey referred to the company’s humanrights statement adopted earlier this year as evidenceof the company’s “long-held belief thatuniversally recognized human rights should berespected.” “RAI and its operating companies are committedto complying with all laws and regulations,”Ivey said. “However, we do not believeit is appropriate for our companies to assumethe regulatory and enforcement role of the federal,state and local governments.”In a prepared statement, FLOC took issuewith Reynolds American’s pledge to addresshuman rights issues related to working conditionsin foreign countries. In its proxy statementfor the 2010 shareholders meeting, the companysaid it will “seek opportunities for partneringwith other concerned parties to improve theseconditions.” “Why will [Reynolds American] not partnerwith interested parties such as FLOC whenworkers face the same situation right here inNorth Carolina?” the union asked in the statement.Reynolds American has steadfastly claimedthat farm workers who harvest its tobaccoare not its employees, and therefore not thecompany’s responsibility. Reynolds Americancontends that it contracts with tobacco growers,and it’s the growers who hire the farm workers.Velasquez strongly disagrees with ReynoldsAmerican’s position. He contends that thecompany responsible for its entire supply chainfrom top to bottom. During the May 7 rally, Velasquez askedthe crowd to think about the plight of tobaccoworkers at the bottom of the chain.“Brothers and sisters, this is the temperatureand the heat the workers are out there plantingtobacco — topping, suckering and harvesting— not only in 85 degree, but 90 degrees, 100degrees and they’re going to be working all dayin this heat, in this sun from six in the morningto six in the evening with a half-hour forlunch,” Velasquez said. In 2005, FLOC and the Growers Associationsigned an historic agreement that grantedimmigrant tobacco farm workers a set of basicrights. The agreement gave farm workers freedomof association — any worker can join theunion — as well as a grievance procedurescovering a host of issues from recruitment inMexico to unfair working conditions in thetobacco fields. Other worker benefits includeinjury pay, bereavement pay, a workers’ compensationsystem and a seniority system thathelps eliminate discrimination against workerswho file grievances.Velasquez said FLOC is not seeking athree-way contract between the union, the NCGrowers Association and Reynolds American— like the 2004 contract it struck with MountOlive Pickle Company. “We don’t seek to do the same thing we didwith Mount Olive, but the principle is the same— we hold the entire supply chain accountablefor the people on the bottom,” Velasquez said.“This is much more massive. If we’re going toimprove the conditions of those workers andtheir environment, we need to talk about thebest structure to do that.”FLOC estimates that only 15 to 20 percent oftobacco growers in the state supply their productto Reynolds American. If FLOC strikes anagreement with Reynolds, that would leave 80to 85 percent of tobacco farm workers unprotected,Velasquez said.FLOC hopes that by starting a dialogue withReynolds American, the two parties can reach acreative solution. “We don’t know what the actual programmaticsolution is until we start throwing thingsback and forth in a discussion,” Velasquezsaid. “The solution will probably be differentthan [successful FLOC campaigns against]Campbell’s Soup, Dean’s Foods, Vlasic Pickleand Mount Olive. It all depends on the creativityof the players and their desire to changethe terrible conditions on bottom of the supplychain.” Virginia Nesmith, executive director ofthe National Farmworker Ministry, said thatReynolds’ claims that its contract grower andfarm worker surveys indicate “a high level ofsatisfaction by farm workers” is highly suspect.“We know the very extreme difficulty infinding out through surveys like that how workersare treated,” Nesmith said. “They continueto urge us to go through the regulatory processand the Department of Labor … there’s notnearly enough people to enforce the laws, andfarm workers are afraid. They’re afraid evenwhen you think they’re independently beingspoken to. They’re afraid to speak up aboutpoor conditions because of they’re afraid of jobloss and if they’re undocumented, they’re alsoafraid of deportation.” If Reynolds American is truly committed torespecting human rights, the company shouldcreate an enforcement mechanism to ensurefarm workers are protected, said Nesmith.“It’s hollow without being able to, one, saywhat you’re planning to do with growers whoare not complying with workers’ human rights,and they said they trusted the growers weredoing well and they encouraged them to abideby the law and believe that they are, but theyhave no ramifications for those who aren’t,” she said.

Ultimately, it would be in Reynolds American’s best interest to sit down with FLOC’s leaders, Nesmith added.

Velasquez said the next step of the campaign is to continue to put pressure on the company and its board members to meet with FLOC by utilizing a corporate campaign strategy.

“That means going after their business partners — JP Morgan Chase, the bank that extends them credit,” Velasquez said. “We have a lot of consumers looking for something to boycott. We’ve not pulled that trigger yet, but as we flesh out dialogue or lack of dialogue with these business partners, they’re going to become part of a dispute that is not of their making and they’re not going to like it … It’s the beginning of them getting into a struggle they can’t win.”