Category Archives: Highlights

From the First Strike: Sesario’s Story of 50 Years with FLOC

sesario-speaking-at-floc-rally
Sesario is sharing his story as part of our “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.

Sesario’s earliest memories of FLOC are of farmworkers walking out of the fields during the 1968 strike. “It happened so fast,” he remembers, “and we had something like $36 in the organization’s bank account. We did the strike on a farm where the grower was the president of an association representing growers in the area. A local union donated hot dogs and we had mariachis, and we did the 3 day strike right there on the grower’s property.” Even with few resources, Sesario says this first strike sent a powerful message: farmworkers were a force to be reckoned with. “The first strike really made us feel empowered. We were taking people right out of the fields, and it was really powerful.”

Sesario’s roots are in Texas, but he spent many of his early years traveling. Born in Crystal City, Texas, to a family of 10 children, Sesario remembers leaving school early some years to migrate north to work the fields. Sesario’s dad worked for a railroad company in Texas, but was able to make more money working in the fields in the summer. So, he took summers off to follow the “migrant stream”, a path from the South to the North migrants frequently traveled throughout the season to find field work. Sesario and his family first traveled all the way North to Minnesota, planting sugar beets, then moved on to North Dakota to work in the onion fields, and then return to Minnesota to harvest the sugar beets. Then they worked their way South to Oklahoma to pick cotton. “Being a large family, it was hard. We all had to help provide for the family.”

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Sesario with wife, Lucy, and children, Sonja and Tony. (1978)

In 1947, Sesario’s family moved to Ohio, where they worked in the cucumber and tomato fields—the same fields that he would later work with FLOC to organize. After graduation from high school in 1958, Sesario joined the Army. He served for 8 years – 6 months as active duty, and then almost 7.5 years in the Reserves. Three of his brothers served in the military as well; one brother did a tour as a machine gunner during the Korean War. “A lot of Mexican-American families have family member who have served in the military,” he says. “It’s common to visit homes and see pictures of family members in their uniforms. They’re very proud of this service.” He says the Army gave him time to think about what he wanted to do with his life, and work toward a college degree.

The work ethic Sesario learned in the fields prepared him well as he entered his 20’s, pursued higher education and entered the job market. Sesario quickly became a “jack of all trades.” He studied psychology and sociology and earned an Associate’s Degree in social work. He studied labor history and various trades. He has worked repairing vending machines and televisions, and he has worked in factories, including a plant that makes pots and pans. He even worked on the instruments that check measurements on jet engines at Continental Aviation for a period of time, and tutored non-English speaking children. If Sesario didn’t know how to do a job, he quickly proved he could learn.

sesario-jail

Sesario Duran with Baldemar Velasquez, in jail holding cell after civil disobedience during 1978 strike.

In 1968, he met Baldemar Velasquez, who at the time was just beginning to organize farmworkers in Ohio. Sesario listened as Velasquez spoke at a church gathering, and remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy can talk! He was charismatic, he was believable, and right away he convinced me to get involved.” Sesario and his brother, Ysidro, who was also organizing in the Latino community at that time, started visiting migrant labor camps and talking to farmworkers about FLOC. “Within a short period of time, we had worker meetings and workers were calling for a strike.”

That first strike solidified Sesario’s dedication to FLOC and to organizing, and for the next 10 years, Sesario worked with FLOC on the weekends, evenings, and in between jobs to continue to build a base of support in the fields and in the community. “We used to go house to house and invite people to a meeting on a Sunday, and hold the meeting in a park so people could bring their families. In those early days, we did a lot of politicizing, and we need to do more of that now. People have to hear about injustice again and again, until they get mad about it.”

Sesario’s wife, Lucy, and his two children, Sonja and Tony, were also involved in the organizing work. Sesario notes that women played an especially important role in the early years of FLOC’s organizing. “Lucy and I would go out to camps together and talk to people, and sometimes when I would talk to the men they would say things are fine. But when Lucy talked to the women, they would say, ‘We need help getting food stamps, and the bathrooms and showers in the camp are terrible!’” Lucy says she was able to connect on a personal level with the women, and they felt comfortable opening up to her about problems in the fields and in the camps. “The women not only worked in the fields, they also cooked at the camp, cleaned, and then got meals ready for the next day. They knew about all of the problems,” Lucy remembers.

In 1978, after years of slow progress and little noticeable improvement in field conditions, the union launched another massive strike. This time, after years of organizing in various counties around the state, more than 2,000 workers participated in the strike. “We drove in around in a huge caravan, and field by field workers joined the strike,” says Sesario. As the union grew, Sesario dedicated more and more of his time to the work. For a few years he ran the union’s co-op, which served as an organizing base foor the community. “It’s what gave me a lot of gray hairs,” he says. “I was there from 7:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night. I didn’t know anything about running a co-op, we just learned by doing.”

His effectiveness as an organizer came partly from his own work experience, having seen the difference between union and non-union jobs. “There’s a world of difference between union and non-union jobs,” he says. “When I worked for the vending machine company in Toledo, at first I was only making about $75 per week. Eventually I joined the Teamsters, because I saw that the union was fighting for higher wages. Pretty soon my weekly pay went up to over $100. I saw that being in a union was a good thing.”

He was also a proud member of UAW Local 12 during his time with Devilbiss, a manufacturing company in Toledo, OH. After 17 years with that company, he took a non-union manufacturing job making pots and pans. “After working a union job, it was so different. I had to fight management all by myself. Even though I learned how to advocate for myself from FLOC, the hardest part was that there was no union there.”

sesario-duran-1In 1999 after a broken hand ended his work at the plant, he began working full time for FLOC. He laughs as he remembers his first day in the office. “Some kid handed me some paper and pencils and showed me a computer, but the computer didn’t even work!” For the past 16 years, he has dedicated countless hours to organizing the community through the worker center in the FLOC office, working with immigrant workers to find jobs, navigate a complicated immigration system, translate when needed, and continue organizing workers in the camps.

Sesario has seen many changes in FLOC and in organizing over the years, and through all of the struggles he has only grown more passionate about organizing and expanding union rights. “Now days, you don’t have to fight as hard to get into the labor camps, like we had to before. Sometimes we couldn’t even get into the camps to talk to the workers without getting arrested. And today, more undocumented workers are a part of the fight. It was a lot harder before.”

sesario-duran-2Next year FLOC will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and Sesario is proud to say that he has been a part of all of the major historic moments in the union’s history. He says FLOC gave him opportunities he will never forget. “I was able to travel all over the world with FLOC — to Mexico, to meet with the leader of a Mexican farmworker union, to Russia, to Czechoslovakia, to Libya, to Cuba. I met Fidel, and his brother took us out to the new farmworker camps in Cuba.”

Today, Sesario is 78 years old, but you’d never know it by how quickly he can fill a bus of community members to head to a union event.

Help us honor Sesario and his nearly 50 years of work with FLOC, by supporting the “Voces: Somos FLOC” campaign.

Will you donate $25, $50, $75, or whatever you’re able to support member organizing? You can easily donate online here, or send a check to 1221 Broadway St. Toledo, OH 43609. Thank you for your generous support!

Take the Pledge: Support Farmworker Organizing Year Round

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This week, we celebrated workers on Labor Day. Now, we need you to commit your support to organizing year round. With your gift of just $10 each month, we can:

  • Increase outreach and training for our members
  • Increase the number of workplace problems we are able to respond to
  • Build our community organizing efforts to address a broad range of issues facing the Latino community
  • Expand the campaign to guarantee collective bargaining rights to tobacco farmworkers across the South

Take the Pledge! Just $10/month to support farmworker organizing year round.

After you Take the Pledge, share this graphic with your family and friends and ask them to join you!

 

 

FLOC Stands With Community Demanding Immediate Release of Ana Gloria

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ana gloria and sonSept. 7, 2016 – Yesterday, FLOC leaders and members joined a protest at the Seneca County Jail in Tiffin, Ohio, to speak out against yet another inhumane detention and possible deportation of a local mother who has been detained for nearly 100 days. Ana Gloria, pictured here with her son, has diabetes and has suffered serious health effects from the jail’s failure to provide insulin and proper medical care. She is one of many immigrants who have suffered from inhumane treatment in this jail.

Ana Gloria is a loving mother and community member who should not be detained or deported. The Seneca County Jail has a contract with ICE and primarily houses immigrant detainees. It is also well known for its abusive treatment of inmates.

We stand with our community and call for immediate release of Ana Gloria and all others who have been unjustly detained, and a full investigation into the conditions and practices at Seneca County Jail. 

Read more about Ana Gloria’s case in the full press release below.

 

Contact:
Ilmer Jancarlos Trejo
330.338.6240

MEDIA ADVISORY

* * * FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE * * *
Akron Latinos to protest Immigrant Detention Center in Tiffin, Ohio

The Seneca County Jail in Tiffin, Ohio, is the site of a modern-day Trail of Tears, as thousands of Hispanics are detained there before being deported, forced to the leave their families, children and all their possessions behind, much like the native Seneca, namesakes of the detention center.

A group of Akron Latinos and their friends will rally in Tiffin, Ohio, near the Seneca County commissioner’s office, 111 Madison St., Tiffin, Ohio, on Tuesday, September 6th from 10 – 11 a.m.

They will bring attention to the case of Ana Gloria Trejo, 55, a single mom who is facing imminent deportation. She was detained June 2nd in Akron, by ICE, and has spent nearly 100 days in the Seneca County Jail. A diabetic with other medical issues, the jail has not administered her insulin, causing her health to deteriorate as she loses weight and her vision is impacted. Complaints at the jail over the years have remained unaddressed, as overall accountability remains murky between jail administration and ICE.

In fiscal year 2015 alone, 696 immigrants have been detained in the Seneca Jail, with an average stay of 46 days. Over 90% are Hispanic, and many are local from Ohio The County bills the U.S. government a per diem of $58 per immigrant per day, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the County on the cruel tragedies and hardships of hard-working Latinos and their families.

Ana Gloria Trejo’s son, Ilmer, will be at the rally to speak with media. Also present will be members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and its president Baldemar Velasquez, and HOLA Ohio.

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Abel’s Story: “We give everything in the fields, and in the end have very little”

abel in field 2

Abel is sharing his story as part of our “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.


 Lea la historia de Abel aquí en Español.

As Abel turns 30 this month, he’s thinking about how much of his life he’s spent working in the fields. Every year for the past eight years, he has traveled to North Carolina from his home in Tamazunchale, Mexico to work in the fields for anywhere from four to six months. The work has taken its toll on him physically, but he says the hardest part is feeling like he has lost a part of his life that he could have spent at home with his family. “This work is very hard, and you suffer a lot. Sometimes I think, what kind of life is this? We are alone in the camps, away from our families, missing our kids.”

At 18, when Abel graduated from “preparatoria”, or high school, he went to Monterrey to work at H-E-B, a chain store similar to WalMart. His goal was to save up enough money to get a passport, so he could come to the US to work. “There are no jobs in Tamazunchale,” says Abel. “I had to find another place to make money.” His father, a FLOC member who had been working seasonally in North Carolina since 2004, worked with FLOC to help Abel through the recruitment process, and in 2008 Abel made his first cross-border trip to North Carolina.

In August of that year he arrived at a farm in Henderson, NC, where he and eight coworkers were in charge of harvesting all of the grower’s tobacco by hand. Abel felt nervous because he had never worked in tobacco before, and he relied on his coworkers to show him how to carefully and quickly pick the correct leaves, one row at a time. But by the third day in the fields, Abel knew something was wrong. “When we left the field that day, my whole body felt terrible. I was dizzy and nauseous. I asked my coworkers what was happening to me, and they said it was from the nicotine in the tobacco. They told me it was normal, every new tobacco worker goes through it.”

The next morning he took anti-nausea medicine before he went to work, but his symptoms only got worse. By 7:00pm when they finally finished work and went back to the camp, Abel says he felt like the world was spinning around him. He tried to shower and drink milk, which some farmworkers say helps with nicotine poisoning, but nothing helped. “I was vomiting so hard that my whole body lost strength. I was scared, and I started to cry because I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I might die. I called my dad, who was working on a different farm, and he told me it would be ok, that this was all normal.”

abel in field 3

With time, Abel says his body got used to the nicotine and he didn’t feel the effects as much as the first week. After a traumatic first experience in the fields, he was afraid to return again the following season. But without a young daughter to support and no job opportunities in his home town, he says his only option was to travel to the US and try to make as much money as possible during the season. “I decided that what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger,” he says.

And it certainly has made him stronger. During his third season in North Carolina, Abel joined the union, and found it was a source of strength and support to get through the season. “When I joined I felt like I had someone supporting me, like I wasn’t so alone,” he remembers. “I saw the union fighting for everyone who works in the fields. And I saw Americans supporting us, too. Even though they don’t do this work, they were supporting our fight, and when we have problems they are there to support us.”

Abel began to attend union meetings and trainings, and now he teaches others about the benefits of having a union contract. “For me, it’s about job security,” he says. “I know that if my grower doesn’t request me again next year, I can submit a bid through the union. Without a union, if your grower doesn’t request you, you could have to wait or lose a season of work.” He says the contract also offers protection in case you are injured at work. “Without the union and an attorney, a grower could just send you back to Mexico if he doesn’t want to help you.”

Abel with FLOC flagAbel gets more involved with the union each year, and he’s always thinking about ways to negotiate more benefits for members. “If you compare field work to other jobs, many other jobs are easier and better paid. This work kills us every day in the fields. We suffer from illnesses, some have died. We give everything in the fields, and in the end we have very little. We deserve better wages, and someday I’d like to negotiate a pension, so that we have something for later in life.”

Another interesting thing about Abel: he can rap. “I like music with a message,” he says. He uses his skills to write raps about things he has been through in life, and also about the union. Listen to one of Abel’s latest raps about FLOC here (in Spanish).

Abel is slowly working toward his goal of one day not having to return to the US to work. He is building a house in Mexico, and each year when he finishes a season in North Carolina, he is able to build a little more of his house. “Eventually, I’d like to be able to stay in Mexico with my family, and have my own house. I want my daughter to be able to finish school, and someday I’d like to start my own business.”

But while he’s here each year, Abel is determined to see the union flourish and be a part of improving conditions for all farmworkers. “FLOC is part of my life. I’m so grateful. And I am with the union until the end.”

Will you donate $25, $50, $75, or whatever you’re able to support member organizing? You can easily donate online here, or send a check to 1221 Broadway St. Toledo, OH 43609. Thank you for your generous support!

Meet Gillary: She’s 18, and Already Changing the World

Gillary Lanzo

Gillary is sharing her story as part of our “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.

Haz clic aqui para leer la historia de Gillary en español.


Meet Gillary Lanzo. While most 18-year-olds graduate from high school a little unsure of what’s next, Gillary knows exactly where she’s headed, and she has a heart full of passion, drive, and excitement to get her there. Gillary is one of FLOC’s rising leaders, and she brings her passion and love for her community to the FLOC Homies Union, a youth organizing committee based in our Ohio office.

Gillary, childhoodGillary grew up near San Juan, Puerto Rico, surrounded by drugs, gangs, and frequent shootings so close to her house that her and her siblings weren’t allowed to play outside. “It was really bad and traumatizing, especially for kids. Once, my mom baked a cake and walked down the street to give it to a friend, and got shot in the leg on the way.”

But more than anything, Gillary remembers growing up surrounded by a loving family: her mom, two brothers, one sister, and plenty of aunts, uncles, and cousins that raised her in a peaceful, loving home, despite the violence outside her front door.

When Gillary was 13, her mom surprised her and her siblings with plane tickets to the United States. This was their ticket out of a life of violence and gangs, and into the promise of a safer community and a good education. One week later, Gillary and her family packed up their things, and moved to Ashtabula, Ohio, where they moved in with her aunt.

Soon after moving, Gillary started the seventh grade. “It was so hard,” she remembers. “The school was huge, and I didn’t speak much English. I couldn’t understand my class schedule, so I used to show people the room number and then follow them to get to class.”

Just one year later, Gillary found herself packing her bags again to move to Florida, where an uncle had told them she would have access to the best schools. Disappointed in what they found, Gillary’s mom made the difficult decision to move back to Ohio two years later. But this time, she was determined to put down some roots and keep her family in one place. They bought a house in Toledo, OH, where Gillary started high school.

Gillary LanzoDespite all of the turbulence in her life, Gillary never lost focus of where she was headed. She has a passion for working with animals, and in her junior year in high school she found the Natural Science Technology Center, and signed up for the Small Animal Management Program. During her senior year, she landed an internship at Toledo Zoo in the education department, where she learned to train birds, and helped feed and care for the animals.

Gillary also has a passion for interpreting. After her family moved from Puerto Rico and she learned English through school, she often translated for family members at doctor appointments and in public when they were struggling to communicate. “I remember how hard it was for me to learn English. I couldn’t understand other kids in the lunch room, and I remember getting funny looks. It’s nice to be able to help others who are still learning,” she says.

 

Your donation to the “Voces:Somos FLOC” campaign will go directly to supporting our members like Gillary, and the important organizing work they are doing in the community. Click here to contribute.

When she found FLOC, Gillary saw an opportunity to combine her love for animals, interpreting, and helping her community. She started out as a volunteer, making phone calls and attending community meetings. Intrigued by the work, she decided to go through FLOC’s organizer training, join the FLOC Homies Union, and apply for the Youth Employment Program, where she was placed in an internship with a local dog groomer.

Gillary LanzoNow, Gillary spends time at FLOC every day when she finishes her work at the groomer. Through her work with the Homies Union, Gillary has met with the superintendent of Toledo Public Schools to discuss how to protect women in school and respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment, worked with other youth in the community to reduce violence on the streets, is a part of a committee working on a code of conduct with police to decrease racial profiling and discrimination, and works with the community to report broken lights, roads, and parks to the city so that they can be repaired.

This September, Gillary and the Homies are planning a Peace and Justice Walk to continue their work building bridges in the community to reduce violence on the streets and with the police. “Police are stopping people because of skin color,” she says. “It feels like every person getting pulled over is African American or Hispanic. We’re hoping that as police get to know FLOC, they’ll know that they are wasting their time pulling us over for no reason.”

IMG_20160604_132209004_croppedGillary says the annual Peace and Justice Walk, started in memory of Abriel Ruiz, who was a community activist working to broker peace between rival gangs, will be an important step in building a stronger, safer community. “We’re really going to show what it looks like for a community to come together and stand up for peace.”

This fall, Gillary is starting college, and plans to study biology. “Someday I’d love to be doing research in a lab. I’m going to do health related research, so I can find cures for diseases that affect animals.”

Will you donate $25, $50, $75, or whatever you’re able to support member organizing? You can easily donate online here, or send a check to 1221 Broadway St. Toledo, OH 43609. Thank you for your generous support!

FLOC Joins March on Richmond in Solidarity with Fight for $15

fight for 15 march on richmond

Saturday, August 13, 2016, FLOC joined over 10,000 people for the March on Richmond in a demonstration that connected the struggle against racism, for Black lives, and immigrants rights, with the fight for higher wages and unions.

Check out the news coverage of this powerful event:

>Politico: $15 minimum wage movement to vote on organizing mass fast-food worker strike

>Fight for $15 Convention Coverage on C-Span

>Fight for $15 Convention Brings Thousands to Richmond

The march followed the conclusion of the first Fight for $15 National Convention, where thousands of workers from more than 15 different industries gathered to continue organizing for good jobs and fair wages for all workers.

FLOC proudly stands in solidarity with ALL workers fighting for fair working conditions and pay, against racism and discrimination, and for the right to organize. Hasta La Victoria!

Check out this powerful video of Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II addressing the crowd after the march:

Black Lives Matter To FLOC

Homies BLM upright long

FLOC mourns the loss of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and we honor their lives by standing beside our black brothers and sisters fighting for black lives to be valued, respected, and protected. We are proud to be a part of a movement building black and brown solidarity, and today I am recommitting myself personally and FLOC to continue working with other unions and community organizations to build understanding and solidarity.

In our own community, the FLOC Homies Union, a youth organizing committee based out of FLOC’s Toledo office, is working to improve relations between the Toledo police and the local community. The Homes have been working with the Toledo Police Department to negotiate a code of conduct to foster honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior, and treatment that recognizes the value of every life.

Several members of the Homies Union have been the targets of police discrimination, and have been wrongly accused of being gang members. We want police to protect us, and not look at us as automatic suspects on the street.

Read more about the FLOC Homies Union here.

“We want the police to protect us, and not be looked upon as automatic suspects when they see us on the streets,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez.

Watch the news report on the FLOC Homies work with Toledo Police.

Homies WTOL video screenshot

 

Philando Castile was also a part of our labor community. He was a member of Teamsters Local 320, and a beloved staff member at the school where he worked.
Now is the time when solidarity matters most in this movement for justice. I hope you’ll join us in standing with our black brothers and sisters as we all fight for a country where traffic stops don’t end in death.

 

Sen. Jackson silent on wage theft charges as group delivers 10,000 name petition

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May 31, 2016

“We only asked for what is ours and for what the law says: that we should get paid and that the supervisor stop abusing people. We don’t deserve to lose our jobs for speaking out.” -Valentin, blacklisted worker from Jackson’s farm

NC Senator Brent Jackson has been the target of thousands of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages over the past few weeks, all in support of seven farmworkers who came forward and spoke out about wage theft, unjust firing, and retaliation on his farm.

[photo credit: Phil Fonville]
FarmLaborOrganizingCommittee's Action at Senator Jacksons Office May 2016 album on Photobucket

The pressure on Jackson increased last Thursday, when a group of faith leaders, labor leaders and community allies gathered for a press conference and then delivered a petition with nearly 10,000 signatures to the Senator’s office in Raleigh, calling on him to reinstate the seven farmworkers he illegally blacklisted for speaking out against labor abuses, and pay them the wages they are owed.

“We began to notice that the grower and supervisor would steal our wages by clocking us out for anything they could, like changing fields, waiting for equipment to come, or water breaks. Little by little, this added up and by the end of the season he had stolen thousands of dollars from our wages,” said Valentin Alvarado Hernandez in a statement read at the press conference on his behalf.

SONY DSCShortly before the General Assembly was set to convene, Senator Jackson was predictably absent as a delegation delivered the petition to his office. Julie Taylor, Executive Director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, handed the petition to Jackson’s staff, who thanked the group for bringing forward their concerns, but made no commitment to remedy the issue.

The next day, a Univision reporter approached Jackson at his farm to ask him about the case. “Do you speak English?” a visibly nervous Jackson asked the reporter, before refusing to comment on the case.

Watch the full Univision report here (en Espanol).

Throughout the week, people from all over the country called out Jackson’s inexcusable treatment of farmworkers via social media, and supported the workers’ demands for reinstatement and payment of stolen wages.

We know that the retaliation on Jackson Farms is not uncommon. At the press conference on Thursday, Justin Flores, FLOC Vice President noted that this case is evidence of a much larger problem in agriculture, where farmworkers who speak out have little protection against retaliation. “This example shows how farmworkers are very aware that if they speak up about violations, there are often very real consequences, including blacklisting,” said Flores. “However, growers aren’t the only responsible party. Tobacco giants such as Reynolds American, Philip Morris International, and Alliance One continue to make huge profits, while refusing to sign an agreement with FLOC that would guarantee labor rights and the right to complain without fear of retaliation.”

Thanks to everyone who stood with the blacklisted workers at Jackson Farms last week. There will be updates coming shortly on next steps to hold Senator Jackson accountable and win justice for the seven workers.

Allies attend Philip Morris International shareholders meeting, deliver 10,000 name petition to PMI Headquarters

Left to right: Alex Gleason  New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Rev. Luis Cartagena, Park Ave Christian Church, NYC
Michael Szpak, AFL-CIO Organizing Department
Peggy Griffin-Jackman, NFWM
Jay Godfrey, NFWM
Jennifer McCallum, NFWM
Ralph Seliger, National Board Member, Jewish Labor Committee

May 4, 2016

A delegation of FLOC allies attended the Philip Morris International (PMI) shareholders meeting to confront the company about labor violations on PMI farms, and press the company to engage with FLOC about resolving problems and guaranteeing freedom of association for farmworkers in their supply chain.

Pictured left to right: Michael Szpak, AFL-CIO, Rev. Luis-Alfredo Cartagena, Park Ave. Christian Church (NYC), and Brendan Griffith, Chief of Staff, New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Luis-Alfredo Cartagena Zayas, a minister at the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York, pressed the company for an answer about eight workers who were blacklisted from Hudson Farms, one of the farms where PMI buys tobacco, where workers reported rampant wage theft, threats of firing, and violence. PMI’s own audit found violations at this farm in 2015, and now the workers who spoke out are left without a job.

“Why have you not engaged with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the chosen representative of these workers, to help resolve this issue?” Cargtagena Zayas asked company executives.

 

Brendan Griffith, Chief of Staff of the New York City Central Labor Council, pressed the company on other problems that were identified in the 2015 audit, including:

  • 30 farmers who refused to participate in unannounced audits
  • Workers who were coerced by growers to not tell the truth to auditors
  • 23% of farms paid below the minimum wage
  • 12% of workers reported 7 day work weeks
  • 30% of workers were unaware of the minimum wage rate
  • H2A workers often pay illegal recruitment fees and do not want to jeopardize their income by speaking out
  • 10% of workers were not provided water in the fields by their growers
  • 70% of workers did not have access to bathrooms while working

Despite the documentation of these problems, PMI continues to insist that they are doing everything possible to protect labor rights in tobacco fields, and that freedom of association is already a guaranteed right for farmworkers in their supply chain. In the meeting, PMI executives expressed concern over the situation at Hudson Farms and thanked the delegation for bringing it to their attention, but made no commitment to take additional steps with FLOC to prevent similar situations in the future.

On Thursday, May 12, a delegation delivered a 10,000 name petition to PMI headquarters, detailing another case of retaliation against seven workers who spoke out against wage theft and unjust firing at a farm in Autryville, NC. The petition calls on the farm and major companies to work with FLOC to establish a process to guarantee freedom of association, and give the seven blacklisted workers their jobs back.

Left to right: Alex Gleason New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO Rev. Luis Cartagena, Park Ave Christian Church, NYC Michael Szpak, AFL-CIO Organizing Department Peggy Griffin-Jackman, NFWM Jay Godfrey, NFWM Jennifer McCallum, NFWM Ralph Seliger, National Board Member, Jewish Labor Committee

Left to right: Alex Gleason New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIORev. Luis Cartagena, Park Ave Christian Church, NYC

Michael Szpak, AFL-CIO Organizing Department

Peggy Griffin-Jackman, NFWM

Jay Godfrey, NFWM

Jennifer McCallum, NFWM

Ralph Seliger, National Board Member, Jewish Labor Committee

 

 

Hundreds Rally at Reynolds After Audit Finds Serious Abuses on Reynolds Farms

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May 5, 2016

FLOC members and allies took over Winston Salem streets for the eighth time at Reynolds American’s annual shareholders meeting, calling on the company to guarantee freedom of association throughout their supply chain and ensure farmworkers have a safe grievance procedure to voice and remedy complaints. This year, FLOC’s focus was on a recent report of child labor and other serious violations on Reynolds contract farms.

Check out this slideshow of pictures from the event!

Just one day before the shareholders meeting, Reynolds released its 2015 farm audit report, which evaluates contract farms on compliance with legal standards. The audit found cases of children under 13 working on Reynolds contract farms, minors below age 16 illegally performing hazardous work, serious safety violations, such as improper safety equipment when working in the tobacco barns, and inadequate reporting of workplace accidents. Interviews with workers uncovered wage violations, noted that a percentage of the workers interviewed did not feel they could come and go as they please, and found that 25% of growers were not providing legally required documentation to workers, such as information on wage rates, transportation, and housing.

The documentation of these problems, which Reynolds has denied for years, confirms what FLOC has been telling the company since 2007: the tobacco industry is guilty of turning a blind eye to child labor, dangerous working conditions, and many other abuses for far too long.  

picket 1_medAt 9:00am, 40 farmworkers and FLOC supporters went into the Reynolds meeting to talk face to face with company executives about the audit, and the company’s lack of action on labor issues over the past few years.

Ten of those who went inside were youth, and most had previously worked in tobacco.  For the first time, Reynolds leaders had to listen to the testimonies of the child farmworkers that they claim don’t exist.  One of the workers shared his story of having to work in tobacco fields during the summers after watching his single mom struggle to pay the bills and support him and his brother. “Will you sign an agreement with FLOC that will guarantee a living wage, so that children don’t have to work in the fields to help support their families?” he challenged Reynolds’ leaders. Stunned by his emotional testimony, no one answered his question.

There is no doubt that increased focus on auditing and addressing these issues is a result of pressure from FLOC and allies. Inside the shareholders meeting, CEO Susan Cameron focused a large part her remarks on FLOC and labor issues.

However, the company continues to try to sweep labor issues under the rug, and even went so far as to say that the fact that they found only a few cases of child labor in the fields means that the audits are working. FLOC President Velasquez says he thought the meeting went well, and that he sees Reynolds shifting their strategy and beginning to acknowledge that problems do exist on their farms.

“I was encouraged by the fact that Cameron’s report finally addressed the long avoided issue of Freedom of Association. While it signaled a seismic shift in the company’s public response to our concerns, we still have to be guarded because of their tendency to push for cosmetic remedies, like increased trainings, over solving fundamental inequalities.” Said  Velasquez.

Following the picket at Reynolds, the crowd marched through Winston Salem and gathered in a nearby park to hear from others who have worked in the fields. Francisco, along with several other young farmworkers, shared his story with the crowd:

“I’m 17 and have been working in the tobacco and sweet potato fields since I was 10. We work a lot of times from 6am to 8pm, there are no bathrooms in the fields and most of the time we’re getting paid $7.25. This is hard work and they make us work in the rain and other harsh conditions. We see a lot of people get nose bleeds and other injuries and we have nothing to clean ourselves with and can’t leave the field because we don’t have our own transportation, so we wind up just going back to work.”

Reynolds heard us loud and clear: There are more than a few children working in tobacco fields across the South, and the information from the small sample of workers that they spoke to in the audit only provides a brief glimpse into the harsh realities that farmworkers face in the fields each day. Little by little these stories and truths are coming into the spotlight, and Reynolds is being forced to confront the reality in the fields and recognizing that working with FLOC is necessary ensure that farmworkers’ basic human rights are protected.

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Many thanks to all of you who marched side by side with us in the cold, windy rain! Thanks to the National Farmworker Ministry, YAYA, Fight for 15, Black Workers for Justice, Working America, NC AFL-CIO, NC Field, Duke Cakalak Thunder, Duke Divinity ethics class, Factulty Forward NC, HOLA, and all of the members and supporters who rode the bus all the way from Ohio to be here for this event. Each year we see more progress, and we won’t stop fighting until we see an end to human rights abuses in tobacco fields.