From the tobacco fields to the board room

by Keith Barber

Luis pointed out the new washing machine and telephone in the kitchen of the two-bedroom house where he and two fellow immigrant farmworkers stay six months a year while working on a vegetable farm just outside Creedmoor.

A single, bare lightbulb illuminated the wood-paneled kitchen as Luis spoke after preparing dinner on May 8. The washing machine and the telephone appeared in the past year and provide two concrete examples of how the Luis’ life has improved since he became affiliated with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, five years ago. Luis, who declined to give his last name, said the three-year agreement between FLOC and the NC Growers Association, which was signed earlier this year, has given him and all his fellow union members the right to speak up when they feel they are being mistreated. “Speaking for myself personally, I was afraid,” said Luis, speaking through a translator. “The growers were aggressive with us. They weren’t beating us but they were treating us roughly, yelling so we were fearful and timid. The union told us we shouldn’t be afraid. They said, ‘You are the ones working, doing their work. They are giving you the work so it’s important you be united.’” In 2004, FLOC and the Growers Association signed an historic agreement that granted immigrant tobacco farmworkers a set of basic rights. The agreement gave farmworkers freedom of association — any worker can join the union — as well as grievance procedures that cover host of issues ranging from their recruitment in Mexico to issues involving unfair working conditions in the tobacco fields. Other worker benefits include injury pay, bereavement pay, a workers’ compensation system and a seniority system that helps eliminate discrimination against workers who file grievances. Alexandria Jones, North Carolina outreach coordinator for the National Farm Worker Ministry, said Luis’ new washing machine and telephone is most likely an indirect result of the agreement between FLOC and the growers association, and conditions have definitely improved for immigrant farmworkers since the union struck the deal in 2004. “The North Carolina Growers Association should be commended for doing this in a state that is traditionally anti-union,” said Baldemar Vel’squez, president of FLOC. “For the growers association to hammer out an agreement with a union takes a tremendous amount of courage.” Luis said he realizes that most of his comrades working on other farms don’t have it as good as he does. He said housing conditions are “pretty bad” for most farmworkers and there are not enough state Department of Labor inspectors to ensure the problem is being addressed. One direct benefit of union membership is travel reimbursement. Luis has been traveling from Mexico to the United States for the past three years without having to pay his expenses. Before the union’s agreement with the growers association, an immigrant could spend upwards of $700 for travel to the

United States. Luis said he hasn’t had to pay for a visa or pay the contractor who hired him in Mexico. Jones said most immigrant farmworkers don’t have it as good as Luis. She said travel from Mexico can cost thousands of dollars. Most immigrant farmworkers have to borrow the money in Mexico and pay it back promptly or face serious consequences. And undocumented workers receive no benefits to help them pay the cost of travel, Jones said. Vel’squez said FLOC’s contract with the growers association covers 6,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina, and the union estimates there are 150,000 other migrant workers in the state who are undocumented and who suffer “abuse, dangerous working conditions and low wages.” FLOC estimates 25,000 to 30,000 migrant workers pick tobacco annually in the state. But an agreement between FLOC and the growers association is only the first step toward securing a better life for the tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants that travel each spring to the state to cultivate and harvest tobacco, Vel’squez said. The second step is convincing Reynolds American, the nation’s second largest tobacco company, to take an active role in improving conditions for tobacco farmworkers “who have built their wealth,” he said. Vel’squez said Reynolds American controls a procurement system that they designed and they operate. The company has very strict contracts with their suppliers that restricts what their suppliers can and cannot do for the farmworkers. “There’s inequity built into their system,” Vel’squez said. “They allow these atrocities happen in the fields, but they have the power to change that. Any resources they can put into the supply line is going to benefit farmers and farmworkers. We know growers who are complying with all the labor laws to the best of their ability but it doesn’t get them any extra resources from Reynolds. Growers make the best effort and it’s very difficult to meet all the nuances of the law.”

Shareholders, proxies and civil disobedience

On the morning of May 6, about 40 people gathered on the sidewalk outside the Reynolds American building on Main Street in Winston-Salem to hold a prayer and strategy session. The 40 individuals, representing a coalition of activist groups spearheaded by FLOC, received their marching orders as they entered Reynolds American’s annual shareholder meeting as shareholder proxies.

Roughly100 protestors marched through the streets of downtown Winston-Salem onMay 6 to protest Reynolds American’s refusal to meet with theleadership of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. The labor union isadmant that the cigarette maker can improve conditions for immigranttobacco farmworkers by putting more resources into its chain ofproduction. (photo by Frank Eaton)

What transpired over the next several hours illustrates what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. Logic tells us that such a confrontation would have to end in a stalemate unless either the force or the object relents. The infiltration of the annual shareholders meeting by proxies sympathetic to FLOC’s cause represented the second time in as many years the union has implemented a strategy of proposing resolutions on behalf of farm workers to improve their lot. The first proxy to speak on behalf of immigrant farmworkers was arrested by off-duty Winston-Salem police officer MO Peterson, who was working as a private security officer for Reynolds during the stockholders meeting. At10:50 a.m., Ray Rogers emerged from the Magistrate’s Office at theForsyth County Detention Center, bearing cuts and bruises on his arms,hands and nose. Rogers said he stood up at the portion of the meetingwhere Reynolds American elected its directors, and took issue with anopen letter posted on the company’s website addressing farm laborissues. “So I got up, all of a sudden, [Reynolds CEO SusanIvey] goes on to the next item I say, ‘Wait a minute. I have aquestion, a two-minute question to raise before I cast a vote forelection of directors,’” Rogers recalled. “She said, ‘Well, you can’tdo it until the end of the meeting.’ At the end of the meeting, thevote is over. This is the point where I as a legitimate shareholder orproxy have a right to get up and ask a question.” Rogers thenbegan to read his statement aloud. He had read two or three sentencesaloud before he said he was tackled by several security guards. DavidHoward, a spokesman for Reynolds American, acknowledged that Rogers wasremoved from the meeting. Howard explained there was a 55-minutequestion-and-answer session at the end of the meeting allowed forinvestors and proxies to make inquiries of the board. “Unfortunately,Mr. Rogers refused to wait for the question-and-answer session,” Howardsaid. Rogers was politely asked several times by the chairman and thesecretary to sit down but he refused, Howard said, and “securityofficers we hired for the meeting removed him from the meeting.” Howardalso acknowledged that Reynolds American hires off-duty Winston-Salempolice officers as security guards. Rogers said the hiring of off-dutypolice officers by private corporations presents a conflict of interestfor the officers. “It is a threat to the civil liberties ofevery person in this country to allow the police to moonlight, be paidby these corporations to do their bidding and represent themselves aspolice to get a private citizen to do something the company wants themto do even though they’re not violating the law and that is wrong,”Rogers said. “Now, if I was involved in some type of criminal activity,you’re darn right they should have come in and intervened, grabbed meand pulled me out of there. If I was carrying a weapon or if I wasapproaching the dais with some threatening gesture, but I wasn’t. I wassimply there trying to exercise my rights as a proxy, and to raise atwo-minute statement that their ground rules said you could.” Rogers,founder and president of Corporate Campaign Inc., said ReynoldsAmerican uses off-duty police officers at shareholder meetings to“stifle dissent.” Vel’squez agreed that Reynolds Americanviolated Rogers’ right to free speech. “Why are they trying to suppresspeople who are speaking up for those at the bottom?” he asked. LikeRogers, Vel’squez also took issue with the open letter posted on theReynolds American website, and expressed his concerns during theshareholder meeting. In particular, Vel’squez disputed a statement thatFLOC is pressuring Reynolds to enter a collective bargaining agreementto raise funds for the union. “They’re mistaken. We’re notasking for a collective bargaining agreement with RJ Reynolds,” hesaid. “They control the production chain. They control the pricing. Forthem to argue they have no control over the supply chain is ludicrous. Forthem to say this is a money-making venture is [untrue].” Howard saidReynolds American’s position is clear. “The bottom line is, the companyis not going to enter a collective bargaining agreement with FLOC,”Howard said. “The farm workers are not employees of RJ Reynolds. TheNorth Carolina Growers Association has an agreement with FLOC. Thegrowers association is the proper body to negotiate with.” Vel’squezalso cited other portions of Reynolds’ open letter as “misinformation.” The letter states that FLOC membership has dropped from 4,000to 640 and that workers may be canceling their memberships due todissatisfaction with the union. The letter also claims that FLOC hasbeen accused of using “deceptive tactics to recruit membership,” and800 workers have filed complaints against FLOC with the Mexicanconsulate. “They’re fabricating a lot of stuff,” Vel’squezsaid. With respect to membership numbers, FLOC has about 6,000 members,but the numbers fluctuate from year-to-year based on numbers ofagricultural workers recruited from Mexico, Vel’squez said. The claim of 800 complaints filed with the Mexican consulate is simply untrue, he added. Rogersnever got to finish his statement at the shareholders meeting, but ifhe had the chance, he said he would have inquired if any of the boardnominees were part of the Reynolds “leadership teams” that wrote theopen letter. “Do the nominees really believe FLOC’s actionsagainst Reynolds is an issue of the union trying to make money ratherthan putting an end to the nightmarish working and living conditions,misery and exploitation suffered by farmworkers harvesting yourtobacco?” Rogers said, reading from his statement. “I suggest that thisletter, full of contradictions and lies, is an effort to divertshareholders and the public’s attention away from the greed shown byReynolds executives.” Vel’squez said greed is the reason thetobacco farmers and farmworkers find themselves in an untenablesituation. He cited the compensation package Reynolds executives votedfor themselves during the May 6 meeting as evidence of that fact.“Those people who labor at the bottom of the supply chain are stuckthere trying to subsist and to survive,” he said. “Many of thosefarmers are marginal and it’s unfair to place the burden on the farmerwho is the direct employer of the farmworkers. To say [thefarmer] is responsible for that is absurd when the corporation wasvoting themselves awards up to $20 million. How many pounds of tobaccodoes it take to produce that $20 million and the farmers and theworkers produce that? The people at the top to get more, and the peopleon the bottom get less; I think it’s immoral.” Michael Szpak,a proxy sympathetic to the farmworkers’ cause, attempted to follow upon Rogers’ point during the shareholders meeting. Szpak said he triedto ask a question and he was immediately surrounded by security guardsand ejected from the meeting. After his release from the county jail,Rogers headed over to the Winston-Salem Public Safety Center and filedassault charges against Reynolds American CEO Susan Ivey. Sgt. JeffreyStutts received the complaint according to police reports. “Instead of me being brought before the court it should the people involved in this assault on me because I was assaulted. Itshould be Ms. Ivey, the chair and the people who directed the gang ofthugs to remove me from the meeting,” Rogers said. “I’m 65 years old.It’s not becoming to treat a senior citizen this way.” Rogers isscheduled to appear in court on trespassing and resisting arrestcharges on July 17.

Organizing a protest

Momentsafter Rogers and the other proxies entered the Reynolds Americanbuilding on May 6, Alexandria Jones went back to work, helping toorganize the members of various coalitions of nonprofit groups thatsupport the Reynolds campaign. The coalition utilized Lloyd

PresbyterianChurch off 7th Street as a headquarters to mobilize volunteers tosignboard in the downtown area during lunchtime before meeting atWinston Square Park to begin a protest march. “What are welooking for? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” exclaimed a group ofroughly 80 protest marchers in unison as they marched along thedowntown streets of Winston-Salem around 12:30 p.m. A percussion grouphelped the marchers stay in rhythm. Protestors held aloft signs thatread “Stop Oppression of Tobacco Workers” and “Meet with FLOC” andchanted slogans in unison as they passed by the RJ Reynolds and theReynolds American buildings. Shortly after 1 p.m., the protestorsarrived at Lloyd Presbyterian Church. Nick Wood, a FLOCorganizer, thanked farm workers and student groups for attending therally. Wood also thanked the National Farm Worker Ministry and a groupthat traveled from Toledo, Ohio to show their support for farmworkers. Anumber of speakers addressed the crowd, including Virginia Nesmith ofthe National Farm Worker Ministry. Nesmith served as one of the proxiesat the shareholders meeting and delivered a report from the meeting. “Wewere still able to very significantly raise the issue that farmworkersneed a voice with the company, and the company needs to respond tothat,” Nesmith said. Proxies introduced four resolutions at theshareholders meeting on behalf of farmworkers, Nesmith said. One of theresolutions related to human rights while another related to healthissues and green tobacco sickness. “While I spoke, we hadabout 35 people stand up and ironically, as I understand we havebetween 30,000 and 35,000 farmworkers who pick tobacco so theyrepresented about a thousand farmworkers each who the company haschosen not to acknowledge as stakeholders in the company,” Nesmithsaid. “Most of the farmworkers couldn’t be at the protest for tworeasons — they either lose a day of pay or they’re undocumented. Ifthey were to come to a public setting and speak up, they certainly riskdeportation, so we stood up for them.” Nesmith pointed out that theresolutions put forth received 15 percent of the shareholders’ votes,which means they can be raised again at next year’s meeting. Shesaid the huge disparity between company executives and the farmworkersat the bottom of the production chain became crystal clear when theboard passed an omnibus compensation plan that allows directors to getup to $60 million in compensation. “It would take a farmworker3,700 years to make that much money,” Nesmith said. Nesmith saidReynolds American’s response — that they require their growers tocomply with all labor laws — is an abdication of corporateresponsibility. Reynolds American, Nesmith said, chooses tolook the other way when immigrant farmworkers suffer racism,harassment, abject poverty and poor health from extendedexposure to lethal nicotine and pesticides. He added that Reynolds’educational video on how to avoid green tobacco sickness was simply“unrealistic.” “If they were to sit down and have a dialoguewith farmworkers and work for representation for farmworkers, [thefarmworkers] could say, ‘We need to take a break today. We need soapywater in the fields to wash our hands,’” Nesmith said. “The cure to GTSis when workers are able to represent themselves and speak up withoutfear. So sitting down with FLOC to determine how to deal with thatprocess, to enable more workers to come into this process in a legalway and to remove the fear of undocumented workers — all those thingsReynolds has the power to help with.” During a 2001 study conducted bythe Wake Forest School of Medicine, researchers reported that 44 of 182tobacco farmworkers suffered from green tobacco sickness over a 10-weekperiod. The study was conducted at 37 different tobacco farms in Wakeand Granville counties. Researchers found that green tobacco sicknessis caused by acute nicotine poisoning resulting from absorption throughthe skin of nicotine from the green tobacco plants. Thehighest incidences happen during harvest with symptoms such as nausea,vomiting, headache and dizziness. The study concluded green tobaccosickness is “a highly prevalent occupational illness among Latinomigrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina.” At theMay 6 rally, Vel’squez took the dais and described the movement toprotest slave-like hardships for tobacco farm workers as gainingstrength. Eventually, Reynolds American will have toacknowledge FLOC’s request to sit down and discuss an agreement betweenthe company and farmworkers, he said. “It’s time for them to recognizethe farmworker,” Vel’squez said. “We keep knocking — somebody’s goingto have to answer. Somebody, someday is going to hear us and that willbe the day that Susan Ivey sits down and has coffee with the farmworkerthat built her wealth.” The crowd roared its approval.Vel’squez said if Reynolds leadership refuses to meet with FLOCrepresentatives, the union will then organize a national boycott of itsstakeholders’ products. “There’s a lot of doors of entry,” hesaid. “If each one of their board members is important to them, eachone of them is a door, so we’ve got a lot of doors to pick from. We’rejust going to pick the best one. The key to a successful consumerboycott is choosing the target and getting access to the consumers whohave that product that are most sympathetic to the farmworkers and Ithink that’s the majority of people in the United States.”

What would a consumer campaign look like?

Ray Rogers knows a thing or two about how to run a successful corporate campaign. Rogersled the campaign to unionize textile workers at JP Stevens and Co. inthe mid-1970s alongside Crystal Lee Sutton — the inspiration for thefilm character “Norma Rae.” Rogers is also the director of the Campaignto Stop Killer Coke, which claims Coca-Cola is guilty of labor, humanrights and environmental abuses. He said the campaign has managed toget Coca-Cola products kicked off 52 university campuses as studentshave joined the consumer boycott. “You’ve got to buildsomething that’s powerful that can really raise the stakes economicallyand politically,” Rogers said. “You force them to take the low road ofmorality — do the right things for the right reasons. They’ve got farmore to lose than to gain if they don’t do the right thing.” Rogerssaid RJ Reynolds doesn’t want to take responsibility for thefarmworkers, but they are clearly the only entity in the productionchain that can help improve conditions for the people at the bottom. Rogerssaid he and Vel’squez have been collaborating on a strategy oftargeting the board members of Reynolds American to achieve FLOC’saims. “RJ Reynolds is bricks, mortar,machinery, cigarettes, but they don’t make policies and decisions thatharm people and communities; people do. So you have to personalize yourcampaign. That means you have to look at the executives andthe board of directors and figure out how you can bring pressure onthem as individuals,” Rogers said. Rogers pointed out that Susan Iveyserves on the board of Wake Forest University. “We need totake this fight into Wake Forest big time and get those studentscalling for her to remove herself from the board,” he said.

Back on the farm

Afarmworker who identified himself as “Juan” sat at a picnic tableoutside a powder-blue mobile home as the sun set on May 8. Juan livesin the mobile home with two other farmworkers at a tobacco farm outsideKnightdale. Juan, who swatted at mosquitoes while he spoke, said it wasmore comfortable than sitting inside the mobile home, which has noair conditioning. A native of Durango, Mexico, Juan said he’s beencoming to work in North Carolina as an H2A guest workers for the past14 years. He joined FLOC three years ago but was not aware of theunion’s campaign against Reynolds American. Back in Durango,Juan is a farmer. “I grow corn, rice and beans, but everything isfalling apart,” he said through an interpreter. “There’s not any rainso crops don’t produce anything. It’s hard because there is no workthere.” Luis, who has worked at his farm 11 years, saidconditions are equally difficult in his home state of Michoacan, inMexico. Luis said he believes FLOC’s campaign is very important forimmigrant farmworkers and farmers alike. “I understand thecampaign would benefit both workers and growers. If they win thiscampaign, the growers can start growing tobacco again,” Luis said. In2005, the grower Luis works for stopped cultivating tobacco because theprice was too low. Luis said he also hopes that the H2A guest workerprogram could be extended to grant more visas to undocumented workers. “IfI had a way to support this program being extended I would do itbecause it’s much better to come with papers. It would be great if wecould extend the work permit program beyond agriculture,” Luis said.Vel’squez said the reality is that the only way for an immigrant towork in agriculture in the United States is through the guest workerprogram. He said FLOC will support an expansion of the program only ifit includes labor rights for workers and a stipulation no existingworkers will be replaced. Luis said his greatest hope is FLOCcan one day implement an employee pension plan. “Having better salariesis good, but if I had to choose, the pension issue is more important,”he said. Bo Glenn, a member of the Eno River Unitarian UniversalistFellowship, attended the May 6 rally for farmworkers. Glenn isa Winston-Salem native. He believes a little historical perspectivemight help Reynolds American executives see that this issue isn’t goingto just go away. “Obviously the major hurdle is the innate prejudicemost people have for migrant farm workers,” Glenn said. “They’ve got torecognize that they’re just like farmworkers we’ve had in NorthCarolina for years. When I was growing up, most farmworkers wereAfrican-Americans and there’s a long history of poor farm workingconditions. It’s a continuation of what’s been going on for decades,but hopefully now, they’re now recognizing economic justice isappropriate.” Luis said the farmworker union will continue togrow in strength and will not relent in its fight for better workingand living conditions. “When someone is alone it’s moredifficult for us to ask for something from the growers or whomever itmay be,” he said. “But if we are united, it is easier.”

ABOVE:The Farm Labor Organizing Committee estimates that 25,000 to 30,000migrant farmworkers travel from Mexico annually to pick tobacco onNorth Carolina farms. BELOW: A photo of Ray Rogers’ proxyidentification card for the May 6 Reynolds American shareholder meetingin Winston-Salem. Rogers was arrested and ejected from the meeting whenhe attempted to make a statement about an open letter on the Reynoldswebsite. (photo courtesy of FLOC)