WINSTON-SALEM (North Carolina) JOURNAL

September 8, 2017

 

Farm worker group plans vote on whether to boycott Reynolds' Vuse e-cig

 

By Richard Craver

 

A farmworker labor group often at odds with Reynolds American Inc. will vote Saturday on whether to begin a national boycott of the company’s Vuse, the top-selling electronic cigarette.

As of August, Vuse’s top market share was 29.8 percent, sold at more than 111,000 U.S. retail outlets.

Catherine Crowe, a spokeswoman for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, of FLOC, said the potential boycott of Vuse is designed to dent Reynolds’ revenue stream since “it is a fairly new product and market for Reynolds.”

“Reynolds has still not signed an agreement with FLOC that would affect real change on the ground by guaranteeing farmworkers freedom of association and implementing a grievance mechanism that farmworkers could use to resolve issues without fear of retaliation,” Crowe said.

According to the N.C. Growers Association, FLOC represents about 2,000 farmworkers in the state.

Since 2007, FLOC has conducted occasional adversarial inquiries during the question-and-answer session of Reynolds’ annual shareholder meeting, as well as peaceful street protests following the meeting.

The group was not able to protest in May of this year since Reynolds did not conduct a shareholder meeting. Reynolds was at that time in the process of selling to British American Tobacco Plc the remaining 57.8 percent of Reynolds that BAT did not already own.

FLOC is holding its constitutional convention today and Saturday in Toledo, Ohio, to advance its efforts to obtain collective bargaining rights for all farmworkers. Members will meet in committees this afternoon to discuss resolutions, according to the group’s website. A protest march is scheduled following the convention that FLOC said is focused on white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, as well as state and federal laws and rulings that FLOC considers racist, such as President Donald Trump’s decision to signal the end to the DACA program.

It projects having about 300 farmworkers from the Midwest and South in attendance, along with elected officials.

Reynolds said Thursday it had no comment on FLOC’s boycott discussion.

The group has identified a number of problems at tobacco farms in North Carolina, including fatalities, pay below the minimum wage, child labor, and a lack of water and breaks during work. Studies by researchers with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have documented such conditions.

In recent years, FLOC has requested that Reynolds support its efforts to require its tobacco suppliers to guarantee laborers freedom of association, including recognition of the right to collective bargaining. FLOC also is pushing for tobacco growers to pay a living wage of $15 an hour.

Ownership of Vuse and plans to take the e-cig brand globally was a primary incentive for BAT to buy Reynolds.

Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC’s president, has visited BAT’s board of directors in London to directly make his case for permitting U.S. farm laborers freedom of association.

However, since BAT took full ownership of Reynolds, it has not made a formal comment about its relationship with FLOC.

“BAT has been helpful in pushing Reynolds in the right direction, but has always claimed that their control only went so far since they only owned 42 percent of Reynolds,” Crowe said. “BAT now has more control over U.S.-contracted tobacco farms. We are continuing to push both BAT and Reynolds to move from cosmetic approaches and corporate audits.”

Susan Cameron, who served alternatively as Reynolds’ chairwoman and chief executive before the sale to BAT, said in 2016 that the company has shown its willingness to engage with FLOC. She cited improved living conditions for farmworkers employed by tobacco farmers in its supply chain. It has donated money to a third-party group to improve housing for about 2,500 farmworkers.

However, Cameron stressed that freedom of association is “unworkable,” while Thomas Wajnert, Reynolds’ former chairman, said the idea is “off the table.”

“The fact is, every tobacco farmworker today has the right to join a union ... and that right is protected by state law and the R.J. Reynolds grower contract,” Cameron said.

Reynolds spokesman David Howard said on July 29 at the close of the sale to BAT that “Reynolds Tobacco addresses farmworker issues in its supply chain with a program that focuses on training, audits and stakeholder engagement.”

“We think that is the right approach, and will continue focusing on those efforts.”

Reynolds remains committed to the Farm Labor Practices Group, Howard said. Discussions by the group has led to improved employee training and safety education by tobacco growers, as well as keeping anyone under age 16 from working in the fields unless they have family permission.

“Because the supply chain is multilateral, a multilateral stakeholder group offers the best vehicle to address issues related to the supply chain,” Howard said.