Farmworkers score a victory

May 18, 2011

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.--After four years of protest, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco has agreed to meet with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and begin negotiations to increase pay and improve safety on the job for the migrant workers who pick a major North Carolina cash crop.

On May 6, hundreds of farmworkers, activists and allies picketed the Reynolds Tobacco shareholders' meeting before marching through downtown Winston-Salem. In addition, 50 FLOC members and allies entered the meeting to present their demands.

But the annual protest of the shareholders' meeting--the largest FLOC protest each year in North Carolina--was not just about winning recognition from Reynolds. It was about building other struggles and organizing interracial solidarity in one of the country's most segregated cities. Latino, Black and white all marched together, and speakers at the rally called for all of Winston-Salem's communities to stand together until victory--and after.

Those assembled at the rally also made the direct connection between the struggle of farmworkers for union recognition and the need for a stronger immigrant rights movement in the state. These calls echoed those from the May Day rallies held earlier in the week in other North Carolina cities, including Greensboro, Raleigh and Durham.

While Reynolds' decision vindicates long years of struggle, this is not the time to stop fighting. North Carolina AFL-CIO President James Andrews encouraged union activists to keep the pressure on Reynolds in order to force the company to rethink its supply chain.

FLOC Secretary-Treasurer Beatriz Maya finished the rally with a call to action: "This is a great first step that came only after people like you built up enough pressure on Reynolds. But we will not stop pushing until we see real progress in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. This campaign continues!"

WHILE FLOC organizes differently than many other unions, this is driven by necessity. Mainly, the union organizes migrant farmworkers, who are not present in any one location year round, and who may not return to the same location year after year. Also, farmworkers are not directly employed by the companies that drive the industry and set wages.

The first battle for FLOC at Reynolds was to get the company to recognize that the farmworkers had the power to affect the company's profits, and therefore, their union should negotiate a contract with Reynolds.

In addition, increasingly draconian racist immigration laws around the country have resulted in migrant farmworkers, who are disproportionately Latino and/or undocumented, being the targets of police harassment and brutality.

Currently, the North Carolina General Assembly is working to pass several anti-immigrant bills. HB 11, for example, is designed to impede undocumented youth from accessing higher education by preventing them from being able to enroll in public universities. Another series of bills being proposed would work together to outdo Arizona's SB 1070 in its racist profiling and scapegoating.

FLOC should be praised for its unrelenting support of organizing farmworkers and for its unwillingness to concede that a "seat at the table" was "enough." Now, it will be up to the farmworkers and those who have marched and fought beside them to ensure that this fight continues.

Certainly, a seat at the table won't stop the deportations. It won't stop the illegally low pay. And it won't prevent more deaths in the fields, like the death of Urbano Ramirez, a farmworker who was neglected by his supervisor when he became severely ill in the fields. He was forgotten under a tree--until his decomposing body was found two weeks later.

A seat at the table isn't going to stop the CEO of Reynolds from making more in one hour than a farmworker makes in an entire harvesting season.

Unless that is, there is a fiery pressure from below.

Increasingly, the rank-and-file membership of FLOC in North Carolina has been demonstrating what this might look like. Combined with the reemerging immigrant rights movement in the state, which has led to many cities holding "Undocumented, Unafraid, Unashamed" rallies, the possibility for a strong fight against racism and exploitation is rising, even as the attacks from both Republicans and Democrats attempt to resegregate us and make union organizing--already incredibly difficult in the one of the most vehemently anti-union "right to work states"--even harder.

Despite the attempt to portray the FLOC protest as a demand to "fix the supply chain," there was something else buzzing through the stream of marchers--a vision of power and of a different society.

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