From Workers.org, Workers World, Ana Maria Reichenbach, 21 May 2011.
[Winston-Salem, NC] — On May 6, after years of pressure, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. finally agreed to engage in discussions with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a national labor union representing farmworkers in North Carolina.
For the past three years FLOC and community members have flooded the Reynolds American Inc. shareholders’ meetings, demanding that the corporation change conditions for farmworkers by pressuring growers and reducing their own profits to give farmworkers a decent life. The bosses had refused to negotiate with FLOC and washed their hands of any responsibility for the human rights abuses, even though it is their corporate greed which causes the deplorable living conditions for nearly 100,000 North Carolina tobacco workers.
During the meeting Justin Flores, a FLOC organizer, made an open and bold invitation to members of the Executive Board and other shareholders to accompany him to the fields so they can visualize the human rights abuses that happen there. His invitation was appropriate, especially because Reynolds deceitfully declares that it supports human rights and that their products come from farms where workers have good working conditions.
Then, unexpectedly, Reynolds, citing a recent study by Oxfam and FLOC that explained the harsh conditions to which farmworkers are subjected, accepted the study’s suggestion to create a committee with all stakeholders that would ultimately lead to better working conditions. FLOC members, organizers and supporters celebrated this initiative but still met it with skepticism.
This decision is overdue, as Viridiana Martinez, a former FLOC intern and Dream Team activist, pointed out. There is urgency for change in the fields.
Pressure didn’t come just from inside the meeting. Hundreds of farmworkers and supporters outside the Reynolds headquarters picketed and demanded “Reynolds meet with FLOC!” The picket was followed by a march down the streets of Winston-Salem, N.C., to a park for a rally with speeches from AFL-CIO and State Employees Association of North Carolina representatives, along with community members.
Beatriz Maya, FLOC secretary-treasurer, celebrated the victory but urged the activists to keep pressuring Reynolds until there is real change in the fields. The march continued to the Lloyd Presbyterian Church, with the energetic crowd shouting “Workers’ rights are human rights!”
The march was possible because of broad solidarity efforts by community members and unions. King J, a leader in the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, explained, “Our role was to make sure that all the brothers and sisters who were participating made it safely to the march.” Also present was Wesley Morris from the Beloved Community Center, which has been supporting FLOC since 2007. “Some of us were proxies. We did outreach, provided chairs and tables, and helped with the food,” he said.
Members of FLOC were hopeful after the meeting and expect to be contacted by Reynolds to negotiate the changes. Diego Reyes, son of a North Carolina farmworker, said, “The meeting was very successful. We had a very positive impact both inside and outside of the meeting in the Winston-Salem community, which historically has been involved in this same struggle. Now we are trying to bring real changes to this town to enforce basic human rights.”