For over a decade, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has been pushing Reynolds Tobacco Company to improve conditions and wages for farm workers in its supply chain. With Reynolds’ headquartered in North Carolina, the National Farm Worker Ministry, also headquartered in North Carolina since 2013, was FLOC’s natural partner to help the farm workers have their voices heard at the annual shareholder meetings.
“They kept changing the rules every year and trying to squeeze us out, but we always overcame and had a voice and a presence,” says Julie Taylor, Executive Director of NFWM.
“We were very involved in helping to organize events around shareholder meetings. We’d hold rallies outside and have people inside. We worked with [FLOC]. We organized questions, pictures, etc. The YAYAs [Youth and Young Adult network] came up for the shareholder meetings also,” remembered Virginia Nesmith, former Executive Director of NFWM.
Gabi Rios, former YAYA, remembers driving from Orlando to North Carolina in a bus. “We made a mixtape for the trip,” she said laughing. They stayed in churches and would help however needed, including driving farm workers to protests and events, visiting camps, and hearing workers’ stories. “It was the first time I visited with a farm worker at their camps,” Gabi recalled.
In July 2017, British American Tobacco, based in the United Kingdom, acquired Reynolds Tobacco to create the world’s biggest tobacco company. As Executive Director of NFWM at the time, Virginia Nesmith traveled to London with Baldemar Velasquez, President of FLOC, in an effort to gain support from the World Council of Churches.
Suzanne Darweesh, Chair of the Orange County Interfaith Committee to Aid Farmworkers (OCIC) recalls being asked to go to the British Consulate in Los Angeles in support of FLOC’s campaign. “We took our banner and went to demonstrate in front of the consulate. They invited us up to the office and we explained the dangers of pesticides for farm workers and that we wanted them outlawed. They were gracious,” said Suzanne.
The campaign is still ongoing and NFWM continues to provide support, currently as a co-convener of a letter from faith-based organizations, nationally and internationally, asking British American Tobacco to recognize the human right to freedom of association for farm workers in North Carolina.
“The British are very proper. Having a letter signed by hundreds of faith leaders is something they will pay attention to,” said Baldemar.