Upbeat farm labor activists push Reynolds for agreement

by Jordan Green

Members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee union and supporters from across the street picketed outside Reynolds American’s corporate headquarters in downtown Winston-Salem last week in an effort to pressure the tobacco giant into signing an agreement to guarantee collective bargaining rights for farmworkers.

About 125 farmworkers and supporters picketed outside Reynolds American headquarters on North Main Street, where the company was conducting its annual shareholders meeting this morning. Representing an array of progressive groups from North Carolina and beyond, supporters chanted, “Si se puede!” and carried small red flags bearing the farmworker union’s emblem, along with signs with statements such as “Dios es un dios de justicia.”

The union is seeking an agreement from Reynolds to ensure that freedom of association and collective bargaining rights for workers on contract farms that supply tobacco to the company, and to provide protection against human trafficking and squalid conditions in labor camps.

Union president Baldemar Velasquez emerged from the shareholder meeting in an upbeat mood at about 10:30 a.m., and said that for the second year in a row the tobacco company has “responded with a proactive dialogue.”

Velasquez said he has recently met with Reynolds American CEO Dan Delen and plans to meet with Mark Holton, vice president and general counsel, tomorrow for more substantive talks.

“I told him the next steps can’t be a cosmetic practice,” Velasquez said. “I told him workers have to have representation rights and the ability to speak for themselves. At this company, they’re the ones who make the decisions that allow the growers to sell their product. They need to guarantee the workers’ rights at the bottom of the supply chain.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds American’s board of directors voted to approve a 6.8 percent dividends increase for its shareholders. Dividends will increase from 59 cents to 63 cents per share, or from $2.36 per share annualized to $2.52 per share annualized.

“Until this manufacturer follows the examples of manufacturers in Ohio such as Campbell Foods and Dean Foods, and corrects the inequities in their supply chain, there will not be justice,” Velasquez continued. “Reynolds American could make a statement to the world through an agreement that they uphold workers’ rights.”

David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds American, rejected the idea that the company would consider signing any agreement to guarantee collective bargaining rights.

“I would say that there’s no progress as it relates to RJ Reynolds,” he said. “We can’t enter into collective bargaining agreements with farmworkers. The farmworkers themselves, they already ahve the right of freedom of association; that’s already addressed. If a worker on a farm wishes to join a union we have no qualms at all about that. Whether they want to be in a union or don’t want to be in a union, that’s their choice.”

Howard said Velasquez has met directly on three or four occasions with company officials since the last shareholder meeting, and said he believes the parties have made important progress despite differences on the company’s role in any collective bargaining arrangements.

“Some of that progress includes the establishment of a multilateral council that RJR has participated in as well as FLOC, the growers association, other manufacturers and the [state] Department of Labor,” Howard said. “These issues are agriculture wide and they’re not specific to tobacco farms and they’re not specific to North Carolina.”

Howard said Reynolds American is announcing today that it will make a donation to Telemon, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that gives matching grants to farmers to improve farmworker housing.

Contingents from numerous labor and community groups, including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Occupy Winston-Salem, NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, the Beloved Community Center, Cakalak Thunder and Hope, made up the picket line.

“That’s what solidarity is all about,” said Joe Greaser a member of the Machinist union who traveled from Raleigh. “There’s power when workers support each other.”