This Sunday, October 28th, two days before Mexicans celebrate "Dia De Los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) the union that I represent, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, (FLOC) will be rallying a protest in Winston-Salem at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. No, this is not some Halloween-style antic, but a call to action over some deadly serious matters.
You may remember that three summers ago, a high school football player died of heat stroke in one of his two-a-day sweltering summer practices. It was reported on the front page of every major newspaper in the country with instructions and warnings to football coaches about keeping their players hydrated.
In the past two summers, nine men have died in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, also primarily of heat stroke, yet you won't recall their stories. These men, almost all Mexican, equally loved by their friends and family, drew not a single mention in the news outlets. Out of site, out of mind?
The brutal system that killed these men is the institutionalized procurement system utilized by global corporations like R.J.Reynolds to secure the raw tobacco leaves for their products. While increasingly exporting its production overseas, the tobacco industry imports inhumane working conditions and dictates contractual terms that determine the fate of the vulnerable workers at the bottom of the line of production. The deaths of the men mentioned above are but a symptom of widespread human rights abuses in a broken agriculture system that abuses the use of "contractors" to side-step labor protections, health regulations and accountability.
Labor contractors in this system have been repeatedly sued for stealing worker's wages. Sometimes they don't even offer money at all, but rather pay with drugs, alcohol and prostitutes! The contractors skirt health department housing regulations, by boarding workers in hidden camps, unsuitable for livestock. The extreme poverty that these workers languish in makes them easy targets for predatory farmers, crew leaders and field men.
In three years, it will be half of a century since Edward R. Murrow premiered his famous Harvest of Shame. Some of Murrow's footage was shot in North Carolina. If one views that film and then comes to witness current conditions, he or she will see that the travesty continues. It is no longer merely a harvest of shame, but also a harvest of disgrace. It is a disgrace not only for the state of North Carolina, but also for the entire nation.
In the hidden or forgotten world of the tobacco worker, the pillars of democracy, freedom and liberty, those rights Americans claim as inalienable are abandoned and traded for racist indifference and human servitude. This inhumanity might be a harbinger of things to come for workers throughout the nation. Are not similar systems of contractors and subcontractors already used to shield corporations from accountability in other industries and places? What prevents U.S. labor protections from being relegated to the rubbish heap of history in globalization's race to the bottom?
Farm workers have always been the canaries of the nation. Cesar Chavez used to speak of this often, referring to the canaries used by miners in the bowels of the earth. When the canaries died, it meant that there was no oxygen and the miners avoided descending into the invisible depths. I ask again, out of sight, out of mind?
No longer will this be true. FLOC has now descended into the depths of the tobacco workers despair, to help lift them up from their oppression. We are reaching into the bowels of the R.J. Reynolds' empire, throwing a lifeline to those trapped and issuing a call to action to set the captives free! This weekend FLOC will bring these deaths to the attention of the American public, and shine a light on those who are responsible for the systemic oppression that smacks of feudalism and indentured servitude.
We ask people to join us and assemble at Lloyd Presbyterian Church at 748 Chestnut St. at 2:30 in Winston-Salem. For those who cannot join us in person please write letters to CEO Susan Ivey at Reynolds America. Her address is: 401 North Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27102-28066. Fax # is: 336-741-0881. Tell her that R.J. Reynolds must take responsibility for the its supply chain and guarantee fair treatment and human working conditions for all who contribute to the production of their products.
Hasta La Victoria!