At its convention last September, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee voted to approve a boycott of VUSE e-cigarettes
until their manufacturer, the Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, agreed to allow all the workers in its supply chain to unionize.
On April 9, the boycott began in earnest. Baldemar Velasquez, president of the FLOC, says protests will be held outside of convenience stores across the country in an effort to convince them to stop carrying VUSE e-cigarettes.
In Durham, just over thirty protestors gathered outside of a Circle K on Highway 54 last week to join in this demand. Velasquez says similar actions have already been held in over fifty cities across the country, with more to come. He says they are targeting convenience stores because that’s where one-third of Big Tobacco’s revenue comes from.
Couche Tard, the corporate parent of the Circle K and Kangaroo convenience store brands, did not respond to a request for comment.
Dave Austin, with Triangle Friends of Farmworkers, organized the event in Durham and says there will be similar ones held in Raleigh and Chapel Hill over the next week. He says he has seen firsthand the good the FLOC has done for farmworkers in North Carolina and wants to see those same protections extended to those in Reynold’s tobacco fields.
“They've been able to show with those workers how impactful a union can be,” Austin says. “They have a list of grievances that were filed last year through
the union under the contract that were
able to be resolved.”
Steve Schewel, mayor of Durham (and former owner of the INDY
), attended the protest and says he supports the farmworkers’ cause and is proud of the work Triangle Friends of Farmworkers has done in Durham over the years.
Velasquez says the end goal of this campaign is to allow all farmworkers in R.J. Reynold’s supply chain the right to unionize, which he believes is crucial to stopping
what he describes as rampant abuse by the contractors the company sources its tobacco from.
A 2011 Oxfam report
found rampant wage theft and violations of safety regulations throughout North Carolina’s tobacco fields.
John Wilson, vice president of corporate sustainability for R.J. Reynolds, says through a spokesperson that the company is committed to improving conditions for farmworkers and that North Carolina law
prevents Reynolds from requiring their contractors to have a unionized workforce.
But Velasquez says he believes Reynolds was complicit in allowing that law to pass, and it’s irresponsible for the company to act as if its hands are tied when it benefits from contractors who skirt labor regulations at the expense of workers.
Raul Jimenez, a former farmworker who used to work with the FLOC, says that, despite what Reynolds says, he hasn’t seen any meaningful improvement in the conditions farmworkers face in the fields.
“While I was working at FLOC, there was this camp that got new housing and it was great, it was nice there, but at that farm, they were still not being paid correctly,” he says. “When a worker spoke out, the worker got fired, so it's just a Band-Aid.”
Velasquez says boycott participants are also committing to hand out leaflets outlining their demands on a monthly basis to maintain momentum. He says he doesn’t know how long the boycott will last, but the FLOC is in it for the long haul.