On Farm Labor in the United States (2/2)

Part 2: How Consumers Can Support Better Conditions for Farm Workers

Part one of this post looked at the birth of the farm worker movement in the United States and the ways in which farm workers are excluded from important labor laws.

There are very real consequences of excluding farm workers from the basic protections offered by the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some of the consequences are direct, and some are the tangential results of the culture of marginalization. Earlier this year, for example, Newsweek ran an article on sex slavery, including a story about farms outside Charlotte, NC. A Southern Poverty Law Center report, “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States,” describes tree planters in North Carolina who were made to live in a storage shed. The grower they worked for locked the farm gates to keep them from leaving. A 2010 report by Human Rights Watch includes an interview with a young North Carolina farm worker who recounts working in the fields as a child, spraying pesticides without a protective mask, and operating a chainsaw with no gloves or eye protection. A Scottish member of parliament, after visiting North Carolina tobacco fields last year, remarked, “What I saw was quite horrific. It was like living in the times of the slave trade . . . As UK citizens, we should be appalled that UK companies will accept such horrific human rights abuses within their supply chains.”

The MP was invited to the tobacco fields by FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which has been engaged in a campaign against Winston-Salem-based RJ Reynolds, the second largest tobacco company in the US (owned, in part, by the UK’s British American Tobacco). Tobacco is big in North Carolina: the state produces 400 million pounds of tobacco each year. It’s home to approximately 1,800 tobacco farms, which employ 30,000 workers annually.

Laborer in Tobacco Field
Laborer in a North Carolina Tobacco Field. Photo credit: Alexandria Jonas.

FLOC began in Ohio in the 1960s and came to North Carolina to support cucumber pickers in the 1990s. The union employed a similar supply chain strategy to the one used since the days of the grape strike: with patient insistence, they pushed Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the major buyer of cucumbers from North Carolina fields, to demand the growers with whom it contracted to improve pay and working conditions for workers. After Mt. Olive resisted FLOC’s calls for dialogue for several years, FLOC called a consumer boycott in 1999. Five years and many actions later, Mt. Olive signed a collective bargaining agreement.

Currently, the Reynolds campaign focuses on securing similar basic rights for tobacco pickers in North Carolina. Reynolds has generally denied responsibility for poor working conditions in fields, claiming that they contract with private growers, who are the ones that are ultimately responsible for who picks the tobacco and how those workers are treated. As one of its tactics, in the tradition of farm worker organizing, FLOC has attempted to turn Reynolds’ claimed powerlessness over its supply chain on its head by organizing consumers to push convenience store chains such as Kangaroo, 7-Eleven, and Wawa to communicate consumer concerns to Reynolds. This is a way for people who support safe and fair conditions for workers to use their collective power as consumers to put upward pressure on Reynolds.

Farm workers in a tobacco field (Courtesy of National Farm Worker Ministry)
Laborers in a tobacco field. Photo Credit: The National Farm Worker Ministry

Consumer actions, as a form of nonviolent action, are effective only when lots of people join in. Currently, there are numerous ways that advocates for good, safe jobs, and strong agricultural and food systems can leverage their collective strength:

  • Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice, FUJ) is an independent farm worker union composed primarily of indigenous peoples originally from southern Mexico. FUJ members have been in a labor dispute with Sakuma Brothers, a berry producer in Washington State, for over two years. Workers have called for a boycott of Sakuma berries, as well as Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, until Sakuma sits down and negotiates a fair and legally binding contract with workers. Learn more about the workers behind this action, and how you can support them, here.
  • And for a more personal introduction to the farm worker movement, supporters can join farm workers in November for the North Carolina Publix Truth Tour, which will include a film screenings, presentations, and, of course, collective action. It will be in the Triangle in early November.

About the Author: Andrew Trump is a student in the Master of City and Regional Planning and Master of Public Administration programs at UNC-Chapel Hill. He focuses on community economic development.