Sarah Zipkin is the project officer for Oxfam’s decent work program in the US. This is the first of two guest posts by Sarah about food, farms, and what it means to support workers’ rights in 2009.
Last week, as I walked through the doors of the RJ Reynolds tobacco company headquarters in Winston-Salem, NC, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was having a flashback to another time. My parents told me about the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, and I read about farmworker rights in the Grapes of Wrath in high school–yet here I was in 2009, walking in a rally with a painted tobacco leaf hanging around my neck that said “Justice Now for Farmworkers!”
Today, a farmworker in this country makes around $13,000 a year and has a life expectancy of 49 years. (Yes, you read that right.) Hazardous working conditions, long hours, and a lack of health services take a toll on these workers, especially tobacco pickers–some even get physically ill. And this has been the reality for over 30 years.
That’s why 40 of us–students, people of faith, worker rights advocates, union leaders, and grandmothers–turned out on that balmy Wednesday morning in Winston-Salem. We were ready to stand up for farmworker rights at RJ Reynolds’ annual shareholders meeting, and to bring the voice of farmworkers to the company’s Board of Directors and CEO Susan Ivey.
At the meeting, we watched executives discussing profit gains over the year, something that their shareholders would appreciate. Except the ironic thing was that the people who form the company’s lifeline–tobacco pickers–were completely absent from the tables and charts that they displayed with pride.
Then it was our turn. One by one, each of us stood in line for our turn at the mic to talk about the importance of respecting workers’ rights. And we achieved a big win: Our shareholder resolution, which recognizes that farmworker rights are human rights, won 15 percent of the vote. That means it can be reintroduced at next year’s meeting.
Meanwhile, Oxfam and our partner, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, are encouraging RJ Reynolds to bring their leaders to the table to negotiate better conditions for tobacco pickers. So, I’m hoping maybe, if all goes well, next year at the meeting our presence won’t even be necessary.