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March in Solidarity w/Tobacco Field Workers

Jeremy Sprinkle
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FLOC March On RJR Oct 20 207Some 300 people - including students, trade unionists, retirees and farmworkers - rallied and marched in Winston-Salem on Sunday to demand Reynolds American meet with tobacco field workers' representatives from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

Reynolds has complete control over the tobacco procurement process, yet refuses to acknowledge its role as the de facto employer of the farm workers tending its tobacco crop and has said it will not negotiate with FLOC.

"Farmers don't control the system. These companies control the money, and they benefit the most from the stoop labor of these workers. We're saying, 'Hey, you need to own up to the situation that you're implicated in.' " --Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC president, N&O 10/27/2007

The union has successfully overcome similar challenges from employers like Campbell's, Heinz, Vlasic, and Mount Olive, negotiating deals by which the companies demand their growers use workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement. The NC Growers Association has such an agreement with its seasonal workers, but because Reynold's tobacco growers are not members, tobacco field workers don't have the wage protections, health benefits and decent housing standards afforded by the contract.

Supporters on Sunday gathered at Lloyd Presbyterian Church for a rally before the march to Reynolds corporate headquarters in downtown Winston-Salem. Many waved flags or carried signs. Others carried crosses bearing the names of farm workers who have died, some while tending Reynolds' crops. Marchers also brought a wreath as a memorial to North Carolina's dead migrant farm laborers, which they intended to lay at the company's headquarters building but were prevented from doing so by police.

In addition to folks from across North Carolina, dozens of union members from as far away as West Virginia and Washington, DC made the trip to show solidarity with FLOC. Among them, Will Duncan, special assistant to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who said of Reynolds American CEO in a letter from Sweeney, "When Susan Ivey won't meet with you, she turns her back on all of us."

NC State AFL-CIO officers James Andrews and MaryBe McMillan rode a bus chartered by the Triangle and Triad Labor Councils from Raleigh to be at the event. The officers pledged that the 120,000 members of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO would stand with the farm workers as long it takes to win justice in the tobacco fields.

The rally and march received coverage in several North Carolina newspapers. You can read their coverage by clicking the following links:

The AFL-CIO Blog also covered the story here.