Jackkie is sharing her story as part of our new “Voces: Somos FLOC/ Voices: We Are FLOC” campaign to highlight stories from our members to raise funds and build awareness to support the important organizing work our members are doing in the fields. Please consider making a donation today to support this campaign.
Meet Jackkie. She’s 18, and out of all of the obstacles she has overcome in her life as a young worker, her greatest victory is graduating from high school this year. It’s a big moment for her whole family, especially for her mom. As Jackkie’s mom pins on her graduation cap and Jackkie steps back into the tobacco field for a picture, she tells us why this is moment is so important: “My mom walked across the border so that I could walk across the graduation stage.”
Jackkie’s earliest memory of the fields is sitting next to her mom and snacking on blueberries while her mom was picking. Jackkie and her 4 siblings all spent time in the fields with their mom, and all learned the work at an early age.
Jackie started working in the fields for the same reason many other young people do: she wanted to help her family. She watched her single mom, exhausted and sore from field work, struggle to work and take care of her family of five every day. “I used to wish I could just sit with my mom and talk when I got home from school, like a lot of my friends did. But usually my sister would feed us, and by the time my mom got home from the fields around 8 or 9:00, she was so tired…she would take a shower and go straight to bed.”
So one day, Jackkie put on her own gloves and began to work in the tobacco fields. The work was hard, but it gave her the one thing she felt she was missing: time with her mom.
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Jackkie’s first run at field work didn’t go well. “I wanted to work, but my mom didn’t like it at all,” she recalls. “I got sick really quickly after I started working. I was nauseous and had a lot of pain in my stomach, so my mom pulled me out of tobacco and told me to go back to the blueberry fields.” She remembers quite a few kids working in the fields with her. “The crew leader would just pretend like he didn’t see us. He didn’t push us like he did the adults, and he would just give us a little money on the side.”
Around 10 or 11, Jackkie took on harder work. “I used to rip up the black plastic covering from the fields at the beginning of the season. That’s when I started getting sick. The dirt would go in my nose and my mouth. I could taste it when I drank water. It was hard because you had to dig your hands into the dirt, use your nails to get under it, to pull it up…it would end up ripping my skin. And you had to be careful not to accidentally rip up the plants, or you would get in trouble. The boss would yell at you.”
Long days in the sun left Jackkie exhausted and in pain, with torn and dirty hands. But even more difficult than the physical injuries was the fear she felt every day in the fields. Barely a teenager, she faced threats and verbal abuse from older male supervisors. She watched people around her get sick from the work, some fainting and struggling without water. But the gripping fear of losing a paycheck kept her and many others silent. “I didn’t know anything about my rights. And [supervisors] knew that people didn’t know their rights. So they would tell us to do things, and threaten to take money out of our checks. I used to think, what if they make me leave and they don’t give me my money? What if they fire my mom and she can’t work anymore? How would we pay the bills?”
For a few years she worked every summer in the fields of Eastern North Carolina. She doesn’t remember exactly how many summers she worked, because the repetitive work days blur together in her memory now.
Until the day she decided to quit.
On a hot summer day, when Jackkie and her coworkers sat down in the shade for a water break, the contractor passed around a single cup of water. Everyone had to drink from the same cup, which was filled with yellow water and dirt. “I didn’t want to drink it, but I was so thirsty. Just looking at the cup, I thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. They don’t give us enough water, or bathrooms. I’m not a dog. I need water, and I need clean water.”
After Jackkie left the fields at 14 she started working in a pepper factory, where she still works today. The work is hot and repetitive, but there’s shade, and a real bathroom in the building – small things that feel like luxuries after field work. But at the factory, Jackkie found a whole new set of abusive rules: workers aren’t allowed to talk to the person next to them, and the supervisors threaten to fire workers who go to the bathroom too often. When she first started, no one was provided gloves, and many people broke out with a rash.
Then one day, Jackkie’s sister introduced her to FLOC, and Jackkie found the support and resources she needed to fight back against the awful working conditions and abusive supervisors in the factory.
Now, at 18, Jackkie actively educates and organizes other workers in the pepper factory and in her community. “The bosses think I’m ignorant and not educated,” she says. “They still try to intimidate me but I tell them they can’t intimidate me because I know my rights. They can’t tell me I can’t go to the bathroom. That’s illegal.”
Earlier this year, a supervisor in the factory told Jackkie they weren’t going to pay her because she had lost the card uses to clock in and out. She immediately confronted management. “Yes you are going to pay me, because I worked,” she said. She also discovered that her and others are being underpaid, and is working with FLOC to push factory management to pay everyone the correct wages.
Now, Jackkie’s organizing work goes far beyond the factory. Last summer, Jackkie founded a youth organizing committee within FLOC called the FLOCMigos. The FLOCMigos are all youth who have worked in the fields, and are now coming together to learn about organizing and support local organizing campaigns to improve conditions in the fields. “We can all relate [to each other], we’ve all been through a lot of the same things. We know the same struggle.”
Earlier this year, the FLOCMigos went to DC for a demonstration in support of FLOC’s campaign to organize thousands of tobacco farmworkers throughout the South. It was Jackkie’s first big demonstration, and when you ask her about it her eyes light up and you can feel her excitement. “I was the one with the loudest voice, so I was chanting and yelling. I liked the fact that everybody was looking at us, but not because we were doing something wrong. Because we were doing something really good.”
Donate today to support the FLOCMigos and their organizing work.