Hey Reynolds, North Carolina tobacco workers deserve decent workplaces
“Do you believe that Reynolds American tobacco, as a company, has a responsibility to guarantee freedom of association for workers in your supply chain?”
Oliver Gottfried is a senior advocacy and collaborations advisor at Oxfam America.
In a room full of Reynolds Tobacco shareholders, I asked this question of Tom Wajnert, the Chairman of the Board, at their Annual Meeting in North Carolina earlier this month. I stood up to make what I thought was a simple request: enable workers in the fields to utilize their right to join together as they please. This is a fundamental right, and has protected individuals and groups for years as they’ve bargained for decent workplaces, i.e. safer conditions, reasonable hours, better pay.
It was a small windowless conference room in Reynolds’ corporate headquarters and our small group of activists and supporters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) were surrounded by dark-suited tobacco executives and shareholders. We came to represent the voices of the tens of thousands of farmworkers working outside in the already-oppressive early summer heat. We came to ask Reynolds to guarantee freedom of association for these workers and for a guarantee that workers who sign a card and ask for a raise do not face retaliation.
Unsurprisingly, Wajnert avoided giving a direct answer to my question. The room that day was not only filled with shareholders, but also activists and supporters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). We also asked for a guarantee that workers who sign a card and ask for a raise do not face retaliation.
Wajnert claimed that current laws already protect workers from retaliation for engaging in collective action. While this may be technically true, it conveniently ignores another truth – that farmworkers are exempted from the labor laws that protect most other workers in the US, including protection from retaliation for seeking better wages.
It was not like we expected a different response from Wajnert that day. For the last seven years, Reynolds has refused to recognize basic human rights for the workers who toil in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. But we were disheartened, as another growing season has begun in the American South, and thousands of workers and their families will once again be facing the same inhumane conditions.