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North Carolina: Tobacco workers say: “We want to be treated as equals, with dignity and respect”

By Kosta Harlan

Protest march

Winston-Salem, NC – The opening round of what promises to be a hard-fought battle against big tobacco took place here, Oct. 28, as over 300 farm workers, trade unionists, religious leaders and students marched through the streets of downtown Winston-Salem chanting “Si se puede!” and “R.J. Reynolds escucha, el pueblo esta en lucha!” The march was called by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to demand that R.J. Reynolds negotiate with the union over the oppressive conditions suffered by North Carolina tobacco workers.

Ernesto Gobinez, a tobacco worker who works in the fields of Nashville, North Carolina, and attended the protest, said, “We want better conditions for farm workers. There is a lot of exploitation in the fields. We want to be treated as equals, with dignity and respect.”

North Carolina tobacco workers face extremely harsh working conditions. As a statement from FLOC explains, “Sub-minimum wages, corrupt crew leaders, extreme poverty, bootleg labor camps, major health risks and heat stroke deaths are still the reality for tobacco farm workers in North Carolina.” In the past few years alone, nine farm workers have died from heat exhaustion while working in the fields of North Carolina, while tens of thousands suffer work-related illnesses every year from the heat and from ‘green tobacco sickness,’ caused by chemicals in the tobacco leaves. A great majority of North Carolina tobacco workers also suffer from racist national oppression. Many are migrant farm workers from Mexico, and those without documentation find it impossible to speak out against hazardous, and sometimes deadly, conditions on the job.

Over the past month, CEO Susan Ivey of Reynolds American Inc, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, has refused to meet with the union or with religious leaders to discuss the issue, citing the fact that R.J. Reynolds is not the direct employer of these workers. But FLOC argues that because of the control that R.J. Reynolds has over their procurement systems, the company has the power to bring about changes involving all parties in the supply chain. R.J. Reynolds is owned by Reynolds American Inc, the second largest tobacco company in the United States and the manufacturer of one out of every three cigarettes sold in the U.S.

The demonstration was notable for the broad participation of trade unions and Central Labor Councils from across North Carolina and the east coast. The Teamsters, American Postal Workers Union, United Auto Workers, United Mine Workers Association, AFSCME, Seafarers Union, Association of Machinists and several other unions were well represented at the protest. James Andrews, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO also attended and spoke at the demonstration, urging those present to organize and help, “bring dignity and respect to thousands of North Carolina farm workers harvesting tobacco used by R.J. Reynolds.” A statement of support and solidarity from AFL-CIO president John Sweeney was also read.

Frank Smith, a member of the Seafarers Union in Maryland, traveled to Winston-Salem with ten other members of his union. He said, “We’re here to share our support and brotherhood with FLOC. Everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities. We’re here to extend our solidarity to these workers, from one human being to another.”

The march snaked through the streets of downtown Winston-Salem, past dozens of buildings owned or operated by R.J. Reynolds. The protesters paused at the R.J. Reynolds building to honor the memory of fallen workers in the fields. Dozens of flowers and wreathes were laid by farm workers to honor their memories. These were then set at the foot of the R.J. Reynolds building as a message to CEO Susan Ivey.

Baldemar Velásquez, president of FLOC, spoke at the closing rally, saying, “This new campaign is long overdue. Despite several studies and investigative reports little has changed over the last several decades for tobacco farm workers. The fact that they still live at subsistence survival is not only a tragedy but a moral disgrace hidden from the eyes of most Americans. FLOC will campaign until R.J. Reynolds commits to joining us in addressing this national shame.”

Tobacco workers and supports marching in street.

Members of the Seafarers Union from Maryland marching.

A FLOC organizer leads chants on the bullhorn

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