Winston-Salem picket and march in support of NC tobacco farmworkers
Winston-Salem, NC – On a hot morning, May 3, over 200 people gathered in front of the R.J. Reynolds (R.J.R) Headquarters in opposition to the very severe working conditions forced on North Carolina tobacco farmworkers. In response, the police surrounded the front of the headquarters, along with every street corner near it.
R.J.R. has a long history of abusing North Carolina tobacco farmworkers through terrible working conditions, such as sub-minimum wages, pesticide and nicotine poisoning, uninhabitable housing and a lack of water and breaks, all of which result in numerous fatalities.
R.J.R. is also a corporate sponsor of the ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), which is known for its right-wing anti-immigration policies, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, along with advocating imprisoning undocumented workers, which private prison corporations profit off of. All of this is documented in a recent report by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina’s tobacco industry.
At 9:00 a.m. a group of various organizations, including the FLOC, Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers (MSFW), the Youth and Young Adult (YAYA) Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry, Occupy Winston-Salem, along with religious leaders, gathered inside the R.J. Reynolds Headquarters to attend their shareholders meeting. Inside, as the CEOs discussed all the massive profits they’ve accumulated in the course of a year, FLOC continuously disrupted their meeting by standing up, calling for a “Point of information,” and asked serious questions which R.J.R. refused to tackle, in order to pressure them into actually meeting with FLOC to discuss and come to an actual agreement with tobacco farmworkers.
When asked on how well the action at the shareholders meeting went, Justin Flores, who is an organizer and Director of Programs for the FLOC, stated “Reynolds finally agreed to meet directly with FLOC, so we saw yet another step in the right direction. This is a direct result from all the campaigning that our supporters have helped us with around the country to shed light on the labor rights abuses happening in North Carolina. However, as the president [Baldemar Velasquez] has said, we don't talk just to talk, so this campaign will continue until Reynolds comes to an agreement with FLOC on how to end labor rights abuses in their supply chain.”
Dida El-Sourady, a farmworker health outreach coordinator for the MSFW, commented similarly, stating “The shareholders meeting went really well. We got to ask a lot of good questions, which made them really uncomfortable. We had a very good presence there, with a lot of organizers talking about justice for farmworkers.”
As soon as the meeting was over, the various groups that attended made their way outside the R.J.R. headquarters and joined with the rest of over 200 people, ranging from farmworkers, Occupy, the religious community and even dedicated activists from both Ohio and Florida, and held a picket demonstration to continue the pressure on Reynolds. Chants like, “Reynolds Tobacco, you get rich. We get sick!” and “Qué queremos? Justicia! Cuándo lo queremos? Ahora! (What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!),” could be heard all along the street surrounding the front of R.J.R. headquarters.
By 11:00 a.m. everyone left the picket and marched to the Civic Plaza, where several different speakers of the FLOC spoke to the crowd, denouncing Reynolds’ abuse to tobacco farmworkers and undocumented immigrants. One speaker, James Andrews, who is President of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, commented, “I have a simple message to all of you today: don’t give up, don’t blink, don’t bat an eye, look at them eye-to-eye, not as trembling slaves, but as equals.” Another speaker, Baldemar Velasquez who is the founder and president of the FLOC, spoke passionately, “There has to be a way in which people can make all the money they want to make, but they cannot do it at the expense of people dying in the fields!”
As soon as all the speakers finished, everyone gathered again onto the streets and marched throughout Winston-Salem, chanting, “When I say people, you say power. People – Power! People – Power! When I say worker, you say power. Worker – Power! Worker – Power! When I say immigrant, you say power. Immigrant – Power! Immigrant – Power!” The march ended at Lloyd Presbyterian Church, where food and refreshments awaited and people got to rest and converse among comrades.
There was a microphone for anyone who wished to say a few words regarding the demonstration or any other topic that was dear to their hearts. A member of Occupy Winston-Salem spoke on the FBI raids of the 23 anti-war and international solidarity activists’ homes in September of 2010, along with the May 2011 raid of Chicano leader Carlos Montes’ home, mentioning the upcoming trial on May 15 in Los Angeles, California.
When asked his thoughts of the Reynolds-Farmworker situation as a whole and the demonstration held in response, Tony Ndege of Occupy Winston-Salem said “The heavily indoctrinated belief that labor is somehow bestowed upon us by our corporate overlords – that we should not only be grateful for having employment, but to fear and venerate those who exploit us at all costs – is what drives the enslavement of the overwhelming majority of humanity. The richest 1% of America now owns three times the wealth of the poorest 80% and that is an undeniably unsustainable fact. In a country with such unbelievable wealth, the fact that any human being is forced to work and live under such abusive and deplorable conditions, to save pennies on the dollar, is an abomination.”
Ndege continued, “In addition to benefiting from abusive farm labor, Reynolds American has begun another wave of firing full-time employees and hiring temps for a fraction of the labor costs. This shows that Reynolds American has no true allegiance to any of its workers. The brown-white labor divide created a false sense of security which has been smashed by the economic downturn. This is why it was so great to see so many groups – labor, church, occupy and El Cambio – present today. When it comes down to it, whether we are documented or not, we are all treated as cogs in the giant corporate wheel. And the only way we can stop this wheel from crushing us is to collectively throw a wrench in it.”