The relationship between Reynolds American Inc. and its most vocal advocacy challenger has evolved in recent years from antagonistic to civil.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Farm Labor Organizing Committee is easing up on its prodding of Reynolds’ board of directors to push the company’s contract tobacco growers harder on worker-safety issues.
Or that the board is bending on its stance on not serving as a broker for freedom of association, or union, negotiations between FLOC, contractors and their employees.
That was evident during Thursday’s annual Reynolds shareholder meeting and subsequent eighth consecutive FLOC street protest outside the company’s headquarters.
Since 2012, FLOC and Reynolds’ management have held private discussions though a multilateral council made up of other tobacco manufacturers, growers, advocacy groups and labor officials. According to the N.C. Growers Association, FLOC represents about 2,000 farm workers in the state.
Thomas Wajnert, Reynolds’ chairman, cited several developments in which council talks have yielded progress, such as Reynolds’ 2015 grower contracts prohibiting workers under age 16 and allowing those ages 16 and 17 only with parental consent and after going through safety training.
The contract also prohibits growers from retaliating against workers requesting changes in their employment terms and conditions.
Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC’s president, said he remains encouraged by the “baby steps” taken by Reynolds on issues that were once not up for negotiations.
However, Velasquez added he needs more evidence of compliance among growers supplying Reynolds before he believes true progress has been made. His request for a list of Reynolds growers was rejected for proprietary reasons.
Wajnert said he believes the council is ready to move forward on requiring more transparency from farm-labor contractors, as well as a pilot program that would allow workers to file grievances without fear of retaliation, such as loss of their job.
“It is our hope and expectation that substantial progress will be made at the working group meeting later this month,” Wajnert said.
After several shareholders or their proxies questioned Wajnert about Reynolds’ policy of not intervening with freedom of association talks, he said compelling growers to collective bargaining “is unworkable and unlawful” in North Carolina.
“We’re one of several companies that these growers supply,” Wajnert said. “We don’t have commercial leverage to force growers to negotiate with FLOC.”
Wajnert said Reynolds has no plans to provide incentives to contract growers to negotiate with FLOC.
Velasquez said his group “is ready for some robust discussions on freedom of association.”
“Workers living in squalid conditions in their camps and fear of retaliation still are on our front burner of demands,” he said. “They deserve the right to self-determination in their labor negotiations.”
Wajnert said a federal solution is required for some of FLOC’s other demands, such as addressing the number of undocumented workers in North Carolina tobacco farms and increasing workers’ pay above the minimum wage.
Shareholders voted overwhelmingly against two FLOC-supported proposals.
One requested that Reynolds’ board authorize a report on the steps it is taking to reduce the risk of acute nicotine poisoning, also known as green tobacco sickness, for workers in the company’s supply chain.
FLOC has identified a number of problems at tobacco farms, including fatalities, sub-minimum wages, child labor, and the lack of water and breaks during work. Studies by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center researchers have documented such conditions.
Wajnert said Reynolds already has independent audits performed on its suppliers that address those issues. Several FLOC advocates questioned the veracity of the audit findings.
The other proposal wanted Reynolds to create a policy verifying that suppliers’ employees are not at risk of forced labor, such as having their pay withheld or their worker documents kept by their employer.
The rejections were not unexpected. All advocacy group proposals since 2005 have been voted down by shareholders.
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