A powerful demonstration of more than 300 farm workers, labor unionists and community supporters here on Oct. 28 opened up a new struggle against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) led the demonstration, which marked the beginning of a campaign to demand that the tobacco company meet with the union to address the oppressive and deadly conditions facing farm workers in the fields of North Carolina.
FIST photo: Peter Gilbert
The streets of Winston-Salem were filled with red and black FLOC flags as marchers wove through downtown and past a number of buildings owned by Reynolds, chanting “¡Sí se puede!” and “¡El pueblo, unido, jamás serán vencido!” (“Yes we can!” and “The people united will never be defeated!”) In front of the company’s headquarters, marchers placed flowers on a makeshift coffin to memorialize workers who have lost their lives or become sick harvesting tobacco destined for Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S.
Many were on hand to demonstrate solidarity with the farm workers and FLOC in their fight for dignity and respect. A large representation came from unions along the East Coast, including the Teamsters, Letter Carriers, Seafarers, Mine Workers, Steel Workers, Auto Workers, Machinists, Postal Workers and AFSCME, among others. Various religious groups, such as the National Council of Churches, were also present to lend support to the workers and show solidarity, along with a number of community organizations including Student Action with Farmworkers, Students for a Democratic Society and Fight Imperialism-Stand Together (FIST).
The opening of the campaign came as CEO Susan Ivey of Reynolds American, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, refused to meet with FLOC over the oppressive conditions on the tobacco farms that supply the company. A FLOC statement outlines what these workers must face: “In the past two years, six field workers have died in North Carolina tobacco fields, most of them due to heat stroke. In addition, most of these farm workers suffer slave-like hardships, including racism, long hours of stoop labor in the fields, harassment in their work, abject poverty, staggering debt, exposure to lethal nicotine and pesticides, poor health, miserable housing in labor camps, and denial of basic labor and human rights protections.”
CEO Ivey claims that because the farms that supply the tobacco and employ these workers are not owned directly by R.J. Reynolds, the company can do nothing to improve their conditions. But FLOC argues that this system of layers of subcontractors is designed for exactly this purpose—to defer responsibility. Because of the control R.J. Reynolds has over this procurement system, as well as its excessive wealth, it has the power to change the conditions faced by workers in the field. However, it chooses to ignore the suffering of workers in exchange for profit.
In this case, Big Tobacco faces big opposition from a broad range of progressive forces. In a statement read at the demonstration, AFL-CIO President John Sweeny committed the support of the national union federation to the struggle being waged by FLOC. “We will stand with you, organize with you, and struggle with you until justice is won in the fields. … Together, we will win.”
National Council of Churches President Rev. Michael Livingston echoed this sentiment. “We all deserve the right to work with dignity and the right to organize. … When Susan Ivey will not meet with you, she turns her back on all of us.”
R.J. Reynolds is a giant, even among Big Tobacco, manufacturing one of every three cigarettes and controlling six of the top 10 brands in the U.S. It will undoubtedly be a long and hard fight. But the fighting spirit and solidarity exhibited by farm workers, FLOC, other unionists and community supporters in this opening of the campaign demonstrates the willingness of a broad range of forces to commit to victory and win dignity and respect in the fields for North Carolina’s farm workers.
The writer is an organizer with the youth group FIST (Fight Imperialism-Stand Together).
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