Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Farm workers and newspaper workers stand up to the boss

Tobacco farm workers in North Carolina are protesting their poverty-level living conditions as well as health hazards in their work for the farms that have contracts with the R.J. Reynolds company in Winston-Salem, N.C. A major march through the western North Carolina city was planned for today.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and a coalition of groups called the Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice are helping the farm workers in their protest. FLOC’s legendary leader, Baldemar Velásquez, worked as a tobacco farm field laborer recently to see close up what kinds of conditions exist and had this to say in a related column:

“North Carolina leads the nation in heat stroke deaths. Many of the past cases happened in July and August when men are not only battling the heat, but also nicotine poisoning.”

Velásquez, a Texas-born son of migrant workers and an ordained minister, founded FLOC in Ohio in 1967. He and his organization have campaigned for migrant workers across the Midwest and South, winning historic labor agreements with Campbell Soup, Dean Foods, Vlasic, and Heinz along the way. A MacArthur Fellowship Award winner, he helped secure a major victory for Southern workers in 2004 by launching a national boycott against the Mt Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina for its treatment of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

FLOC, Mt. Olive, and the North Carolina Growers Association signed an agreement on Sept. 16, 2004, that led to formal recognition of the union as negotiator for wages and working conditions. The workers in that battle carried red flags bearing the words Hasta La Victoria (Until the Victory).

Here’s wishing the tobacco workers of North Carolina La Victoria as well.

Another action taking place along the Southern rim is the Newspaper Guild's decision to spend $500,000 in start-up funds for what might become a corporate campaign against the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, Lee Enterprises. The company, known as an outfit unfriendly to unions, demanded that employees at the newspaper swallow a "23% percent pay cut, the elimination of retiree health care benefits, concessions on seniority, a freezing of the pension plan and elimination of 401(k) contributions," according to The Guild Reporter.

Corporate campaigns have proven successful against anti-union firms such as the J.P. Stevens textile giant in North Carolina and coal mine-owning Duke Power in North Carolina in the 1970s. That last struggle was vividly depicted in the 1976 documentary by Barbara Kopple, Harlan County USA.

What is a corporate campaign? It's a multi-faceted effort that can include: exposing the network of corporate and community connections an anti-union company has; confronting major investors and shareholders--sometimes with delegations at shareholders' meetings or on Wall Street for face-to-face meetings--with the company's practices and tactics; and employing other means such as national boycotts to get media attention.

Lee Enterprises tried to eliminate a low-deductible health plan option for retired workers at the Post-Dispatch, but an arbitration award last month rejected that effort in favor of the retired workers.

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