Daniella Burgi-Palomino (pictured at lower left) is Oxfam’s program associate for our US regional office.
Fifteen miles. That’s how far I walked recently on a hot spring day—along with organizers from Oxfam partner the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), union members, students, and community supporters—to raise awareness of the rights of North Carolina tobacco pickers on the annual Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice.
Like many US farmworkers, North Carolina’s approximately 150,000 pickers often live in overcrowded and substandard housing and make an annual average income of less than $8,000. They also face severe negative health effects, absorbing the nicotine equivalent of almost two packs of cigarettes a day simply from picking the leaves on the fields… which puts a whole different spin on the term “second-hand smoke”.
Our journey began, appropriately enough, in a place called Tobaccoville. We began our walk before 9am outside of the main RJ Reynolds plant. Large trees and a long fence around the entire property blocked any sight into the inside workings of tobacco manufacturing, but when I took a deep breath, I couldn’t miss the smell of the tobacco in the air.
Our group included organizers from other Oxfam partners Student Action with Farmworkers and National Farmworker Ministry. We carried red FLOC flags and signs calling for RJ Reynolds to meet with FLOC to negotiate improved working conditions for tobacco pickers. We drew a few honks, but mostly stares as we walked along the narrow picturesque countryside road.
By noon, we were all starting to feel the heat, and lunch couldn’t have come sooner. We stopped to rest, eat, and talk at a local church. Reverend Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center and Reverends Carlton Eversley and Willard Bass of the Winston-Salem Minister’s Conference spoke about how this was more an issue of “human rights” than labor rights. They mentioned civil rights struggles in past years in Greensboro and the importance of strengthening multi-racial alliances.
By the afternoon, the only thing I could think of was the next break. I was very conscious of the fact that while our rest areas had plenty of food, water, and air conditioning, many farmworkers die of heat exhaustion because they have inadequate access to water or are not allowed to take breaks. My mind began to numb under the sun, and each step became harder, especially on the hilly path along Reynolda Avenue, which takes you to the wealthy neighborhood with the same name. RJ Reynolds built Wake Forest University there and many of its executives still live in the mansions amidst sprinklers, shady trees, and lush parks filled with joggers and families.
Not long after our walk, Oxfam and FLOC representatives attended RJ Reynolds’ annual shareholders’ meeting in Winston-Salem, where we attempted to introduce a shareholders’ resolution that would require the company to adopt a strict human rights policy. The resolution was defeated, but the FLOC still maintains its goal of meeting with CEO Susan Ivey, and the ultimate adoption of a human rights policy that protects workers.
There’s something to be said for the power of persistence, even in the face of difficult odds. Earlier that day, FLOC organizer Justin Flores had told me that “Reynolds owns this city.” For a few brief moments, though, as we walked triumphantly into downtown Winston-Salem at 6pm—sweaty, our feet aching, faces red from the sun, and chanting—it felt like, this time, we were taking over.