Tuesday, September 14, 2010
FLOC launches JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign, the latest volley in a growing Southern movement
(The photograph is of FLOC organizer Diego Reyes (Jr.), taken in his migrant worker father's trailer near Sanford, N.C., this summer)
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the Ohio-based migrant workers' rights organization that has been increasingly focused on the U.S. South in recent years, this month launched its JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign to force the Wall Street powerhouse to pressure the Reynolds American tobacco company to help farmworkers.
"We are asking people who care about farmworker justice to close their Chase accounts, cancel their Chase credit cards, and pledge not to bank with Chase until Reynolds agrees to work with FLOC to find a solution to these abuses," said FLOC community/union organizer Diego Reyes in a recent statement.
As Reyes told me during an interview in North Carolina this summer, "We need R.J. Reynolds to understand they have a lot of responsibility in the supply chain. Neither the workers nor the farmers are paid enough."
This is the latest volley in a three-year campaign to get Reynolds American to the bargaining table to establish a three-way working agreement with workers and growers. The divestment effort is similar to tactics that FLOC has used in the past in successful efforts to organize migrant workers and insist on social justice for them. FLOC won agreements with the Campbell, Vlasic, Heinz and Dean Foods companies in the 1980s and 1990s and a landmark victory with the North Carolina-based Mt. Olive Pickle Company in 2004, the largest labor agreement in the South.
JPMorgan Chase, a leader in the consortium of lenders that funnels close to $500 million in credit to the Reynolds American tobacco company.
With more than $8.5 billion in international sales as recently as 2006 and nearly $1 billion in profits during the recession, Reynolds American Inc. has not only survived but prospered since the multi-billion-dollar, multi-state tobacco settlements of the late 1990s, and it reigns today as the nation’s second largest tobacco company. By setting the terms with its contract growers, Reynolds American plays an important role in the lives of 30,000 tobacco pickers--most of whom are Latino migrants--and conditions in the fields, Reyes says.
Yet, Reynolds American officials have refused to meet with FLOC representatives. “The reason we have not agreed to meet with FLOC is simple: we can’t help them,” said a statement from the company’s Board of Directors and Leadership Team. “The workers FLOC wants to represent do not work for us. We cannot enter a bargaining agreement on the workers’ behalf—they are not our employees.”
Statistics from FLOC and the National Farm Worker Ministry estimate 24 percent of tobacco pickers suffer from nicotine poisoning each season. This along with exposure to harmful pesticides and long hours under the summer son have led to strokes and even deaths. Workers often live in crowded, unsanitary labor camps or in remote, substandard trailers.
FLOC was founded by its charismatic leader Baldemar Velasquez in 1967. Velasquez, an evangelical minister and winner of the 1990 MacArthur Fellows Award, told Southern Exposure magazine once that calls his and others’ efforts to improve the lot of migrant workers is part of a larger social movement that emphasizes community. “There is a new Latino labor force all over the South that will be the foundation of the next civil rights movement in the U.S.—a movement that is going to have a brown face.”
FLOC is one of several organizing groups that have experienced success in the U.S. South in recent years. Workers at the Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., scored a major victory against a formidable anti-union management in 2009 when they gained a contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)in Florida is currently waging a campaign similar to FLOC's Reynolds American campaign in its effort to get the state's largest grocery company, Publix, to pay growers a penny more for each pound of tomatoes Publix buys. The goal is to improve the lot of the industry's largely migrant workforce. The CIW has won similar agreements with Whole Foods, Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, and Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell).
These groups are building on the foundation of earlier efforts, such as those by the leaders of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance in their successful effort to win a fairer contract for workers with K-Mart in North Carolina in the mid-1990s.
The tactics are often similar to those of the corporate campaigns that won agreements with the Georgia Power Company and Duke Power Company (owner of the union-busting Eastover mining company in Harlan County, Ky.) decades ago. The Institute for Southern Studies, now based in Durham, N.C., played a prominent role in those campaigns.
"It's really an exciting time," says Alexandria Jones, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based community organizer with the National Farm Workers Ministry, which has worked closely with FLOC in the Reynolds American campaign. "You have to go to the top to effect real economic change.
"There are a lot of amazing things going on," she told me in an interview in Winston-Salem this summer. "In a lot of ways, the labor movement is strong. You have these small groups out there, groups of strong people. In areas of the greatest need, these poeple are working hard to make changes."