First Person Blog

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Standing up for farmworkers, then and now

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Sarah Zipkin on a visit to a farm in Mississippi.
Sarah Zipkin on a visit to a farm in Mississippi.

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.

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    Interestingly: Many, if not most, of RJ Reynolds’ shareholders are actually hoping the company will go out of business. These shareholders are members of special interest groups who also lobby for anti-tobacco legislation, and their decisions regarding the company’s operations and marketing are aimed at sinking RJR. Keep in mind that when a business files for bankruptcy, the shareholders are the first to get paid, so putting RJR out of business is not only beneficial to these groups ideologically, but also economically. If this happens, those farmworkers will have an annual income of $0, and North Carolina, which is the largest producer of tobacco in the US, will be in dire economic straits.

    I own and operate a small organic farm in North Carolina, and am fully supportive of farmworkers’ rights. I am not arguing against this issue at all… I just thought this was a pertinent bit of information.

  2.'Nicole Coxe

    Hi Anna,
    Glad to hear about the great work being done! As an organizer with the Oxfam Action Corps out in Northern California and also being a health educator doing tobacco prevention work in my County, I am deeply interested in this specific issue. I wanted to suggest that in organizing around this issue to even reach out to some of the tobacco prevention groups in the area or broadly (maybe you are doing this already). As a person working with an amazing coalition of youth advocates this is definitely a specific cause that they care about, and I see many other coalitions or groups caring as well. Making links with health issues and human rights issues is very powerful.

    Keep up the good work Anna. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  3. Anna Kramer

    Amanda and Nicole, thanks to you both for the comments! And Nicole, thanks for being part of the Oxfam Action Corps; always great to hear from our volunteers! I just wanted to clarify that I (Anna) am not the author of this blog post… it’s a guest post by Sarah Zipkin, our worker rights project officer here at Oxfam. Sarah is the real expert on these issues and I’ve asked her to respond to your comment if she has a chance to do so. Thanks again.


    I pray your efforts extend to all Farmers and Farmworkers. I am watching the Farmers here in Iowa slowly suffer the price increase of machinery, MONSANTO SEEDS, land, land rental and very few are wanting to continue farming based on this alone. The younger generation does not want ANYTHING to do with farming which means that Corporate Farming will increase in the next few years as the Older Farmers retire. This in itself will become a Nightmare for everyone.

    I live in the middle of the Cornfields of Iowa. I raise organic gardens of my own wondering if one day Monsanto will come knocking at my door with legal papers preventing me from doing so! I use only heirloom seeds and put NO CHEMICALS in my garden, however, the fields all around me are Monsanto crops; another nightmare.

    I am proud to see you take a stand against the injustices for farmworkers, but there must be an extension to the fight for Farmers, too, otherwise we are at the mercy of Powermongers that will come up and TELL us all what we are going to eat and how much we are going to PAY for it.

    Your Fight has just begun and I pray success for all your efforts!

    Let The Will of The People Rise,


    I just had to say “hi” as I am a former volunteer with the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez, in the 1960’s. I was deeply involved in the grape strike, on a daily basis, for over two years. One time I had a rally at my college in Boston, a small Catholic women’s college (now co-ed) with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. We had up to 200 volunteers at my college. I must have been on 100 picket lines outside supermarkets in New England. I would get thanks from the UFW office in Boston (run by Mexican Americans who were also farm laborers) for the picketing. They really made a huge effect: Supermarkets would call the Boston UFW and complain, telling them to stop our (very legal) picketing of stores that sold non-union grapes. We really pretty much shut down the non-union (which is to say ALL) grape sales in New England and this is one very important factor in the winning of the UFW’s effort to get the grape growers to sit down and negotiate the very first union contracts ever. Please remember that all of this was primarily due to the intelligence and persistence of the actual farm workers, many of whom were illiterate, but who nevertheless came out to states in the East to persuade average people not to buy grapes. They became my friends and were my mentors.

    Ronald Regan was Governor of California at the time, and I shall never forget that he shockingly supported the growers’ refusal to allow the workers to form a union. This was extremely wrong as the workers that I personally knew lived in shacks and they earned, in today’s money, about $40 or $50 a week and had to pay rent, can you believe, for their “housing”. They were unable to properly feed their children or receive adequate medical care and moved around to work. It was awful.


    I am new to the farmworker / immigration issue and I am wondering, who are these farm-workers? US citizens, legal or illegal aliens? More info please, on just who are the farm-workers in America today. I am thinking it is not like “The Grapes of Wrath” were all the workers were natural born US citizens. I dont know, I could be wrong. That is why I am asking here.

  7.'Ryan Anderson


    The idea of the gentleman farmer dates back to the founding of this country. Farming is not only a means of sustaining a living, it seems to me that it’s also a part of America’s cultural identity. So I wanted to thank you and others for your work.

    I’m simply wondering, is there a way for me to keep abreast of issues involving farmer’s and farmer’s rights? A listserv or something I could subscribe to that would keep me informed?

    Much appreciated, and keep up the good work.


    Maybe I read this article too quickly and missed the part about whether these workers were legal or not. If they are not legal they are treated like slaves because no laws apply to them! But if they are legal aren’t there laws that govern the behavior of the farmers that hire them and why are they not being inforced?

  9.'Rob M.

    Hello yall, I’m another southerner, tho I’ve worked & lived on both coasts, now located in NY near the great Lakes…I’m very much interested in these issues, especially the large scope, overarching issue of Corporate Responsibility—which
    seems to be at the heart of these difficult questions such as the often manipulative, greedy side of big business & corporate bankruptcy…
    and the sad methods employed by CEO’s & top shareholders/boards—-such as what AMANDA speaks of in her comment above.

    This brings me to the other comments above, re: ways in which activists & progressive health & political org’s can work for change.
    What seems difficult is the balance of local & large-scale work when social change & justice oriented org’s don’t have the transparency needed to know just how their work is perceived by many allies that we might have: the very workers in these big companies– which might/might-not be unionized or other wise organized
    to work with activists & progressive groups…

    So,, what do you think can be done to bridge the communication gap & get connected even in situations in which big business & corporate actions tend to block/obscure & keep things in check?
    Thanks, keep up the good
    work, Rob =][=

  10. Anna Kramer

    Hey everyone — thanks for your insightful comments on Sarah’s blog. She will be posting shortly in response some of the questions you’ve raised.

    In the meantime, we’re sorry some of you may have seen a few days’ delay in seeing your comments posted on the web… we had a glitch on our end that’s now been figured out. Thanks again for weighing in and please keep reading and commenting, we love to hear from you!

  11.'Sarah Zipkin

    Hi all,

    Sarah here. Thanks so much to each of you for your comments and thanks to Anna for responding while I was away.

    I’ll go through the list of people and try to respond to each of you. Please feel free to continue the conversation in this forum.

    Amanda – I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to shareholders and bankruptcy claims. From our perspective, as long as there are workers employed in that supply chain, they should be treated fairly. If RJ Reynolds were to collapse there is still tobacco being grown and farmworkers who are employed to pick it. Thanks for the insight and for your support!

    Nicole – We are lucky to have you in the Action Corps. I couldn’t agree with you more that we should also emphasize health in this dialogue. At the shareholders meeting we raised that issue as it relates to the public and to farmworkers (tobacco sickness is a serious issue for those who pick it). I’ll share your suggestion with FLOC to see how they can promote it more in their campaign since students have been a huge support.

    Kachina – Thanks for your comments. After seeing Food, Inc. I am reminded even more that there are many mysteries behind most of the food on US supermarket shelves. I encourage you to promote the film in your community ( There are many ways we can make a difference and it sounds like you are already one step ahead. I’m also hoping to start planting a garden this year. Any tips?

    Martha – It is great to hear from a veteran UFW organizer and farmworker advocate! I would love to hear your stories from your organizing efforts in Boston. I’m sure I would learn a great deal. My colleague, Lupe Gamboa, worked with the UFW back then. Perhaps you crossed paths? Thanks again for your support!

    Compassionate1 -You’re right, the farmworker demographics in this country have changed since the Grapes of Wrath. These days, most farmworkers are immigrants, primarily Latino males. Many are undocumented or they come over on temporary guestworker visas, which is a program that we believe needs reform. From our perspective, these workers, whether documented or undocumented, should receive fair wages and working conditions in this country.

    Ryan – Thanks for your comments. There are many listservs to join but I would encourage you to sign on to Oxfam’s e-community if you haven’t already. We can keep you informed of issues related to worker rights. I would also check out the Food Inc. website, which has links to various online communities to take action and stay engaged:

    Rob – Sounds like you are involved in really interesting work. We are also looking at ways to bridge corporate social responsibility to worker organizing. There are many companies who value this in their supply chain and are working with us and our partners to make it more mainstream. Much is left to be done but we are actively exploring opportunities. We’ll keep you posted! Thanks again for your comments.

    Keep the comments coming, all. Thanks!



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