Farmworkers fight for rights in the tobacco fields

GREENSBORO, N.C. – The late summer sweltering heat in the North Carolina tobacco fields can literally kill a man. Over the past few years, nine migrant farm workers have died in fields across the state from heat stroke.

That’s not all. Migrant farmworkers also suffer from the “green monster” – nicotine poisoning and exposure to deadly pesticides and herbicides.

The Rev. Carlton Eversley of Winston-Salem, N.C., was part of a religious delegation that visited a migrant camp in Winston in 2008. He told the Hattiesburg American he would never forget what he saw.

“It was mind-boggling: 125 guys in wooden barracks, seven guys in a room with no windows, no ventilation, no linen, no bed sheets, no closets, very hot, very unsanitary, swarms of gnats … You felt like you were leaving the United States and going to some kind of Third World situation,” said Eversley.

Migrant workers have been called modern day slaves, who labor long hours far from home at low pay and horrendous conditions. Because many are undocumented immigrants, they live in fear and won’t speak up or protest the harsh conditions.

The farmworkers here are mainly immigrants from Mexico who go to Florida, then Ohio to pick fruits and vegetables, and then to North Carolina during tobacco season. In addition many immigrant workers are working now in the state’s giant hog industry, swelling the number of Mexican American residents.

This is why the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), based in Toledo, Ohio, has mounted a campaign with religious and community allies to organize the 40,000 immigrant farmworkers. While 10,000 workers are here on the H2A guest worker program, another 30,000 are undocumented immigrants who harvest tobacco leaves and enrich billion dollar corporations.

R.J. Reynolds, the second largest U.S. tobacco company, makes one out of every three cigarettes smoked domestically, pulling in annual profits of $2 billion. The company had revenues of $8.5 billion worldwide in 2006, blood money extracted through super-exploitation of immigrant workers here and elsewhere.

Diego Reyes, Jr., is an organizer for FLOC. He came to the U.S. from Mexico as a migrant worker with his father in search of work after NAFTA pushed the family off the land. Farmworkers “have been having this oppression throughout the generations,” says Reyes. “North Carolina is an agricultural state and labor is needed in the fields. If it is not other races, it is now Mexicans picking tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes and cutting tobacco and Christmas trees.”

R.J. Reynolds won’t acknowledge there is a problem in the fields and refuses to even meet with FLOC. It says the workers are happy and never complain and besides, they don’t employ the workers – farmers do.

But Reyes says there’s no problem between the farmworkers and local farmers, who are also struggling and being oppressed in the procurement system created by the company.

Because R.J. Reynolds refused to meet with FLOC, the union enlisted the support of the religious community. Wesley Morris, an organizer with the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, was part of a delegation that met with the company on FLOC’s behalf.

“The talks went on for several months, but got nowhere,” said Morris. “So we started grassroots organizing to build community support. There were a lot of tensions between the African American and Mexican communities. We tried to deal with it by finding common ground. First, we held a Black-Brown conference and began a process of building mutual understanding.”

“When Section 278G of the Immigration and Nationality Act passed (allowing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to federalize local police departments in immigration enforcement), we equated it with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act,” he said. “African Americans had to endure a similar thing and understood.”

“You have two very oppressed communities who are pitted over few resources like jobs,” said Morris. “The communities internalize oppression and are turned against each other. Meanwhile, the R.J. Reynolds executives are making millions and happy to see us fighting.”

FLOC is also attempting to apply pressure on R.J. Reynolds in other ways. A national campaign has been initiated to get pledges from Chase customers to withdraw millions of dollars from the bank by Labor Day. JPMorgan Chase is the biggest lender to R.J. Reynolds.

FLOC organized a march on the bank’s offices in Detroit during the U.S. Social Forum in June, joining with the United Auto Workers union, community organizations and churches fighting foreclosures. That’s where we caught up with Reyes.

“The farmworkers are afraid of being deported and fired, afraid of doing something for themselves because of their immigration status. So this is a fight for workplace rights and immigration reform to allow these workers to speak up and improve their conditions,” Reyes said. “We’ll keep fighting until we get justice.”

Photo: Facebook/Support FLOC’s fight for migrant worker rights.




John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.