Farmworkers' union launches boycott of Reynolds' e-cigarette

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee has launched a boycott of the Vuse electronic cigarette to pressure North Carolina-based manufacturer Reynolds American to support farmworkers' union rights. (Photo by Lindsay Fox of EcigaretteReviewed via Flickr.)

At the Farm Labor Organizing Committee's convention in Ohio earlier this month, the AFL-CIO-affiliated union passed a resolution launching a boycott against the Vuse electronic cigarette made by North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The boycott is the latest development in FLOC's decade-long effort to push Reynolds to guarantee the rights of workers at tobacco farms within its supply chain.

"We would like Reynolds to sign an agreement that creates a functional mechanism on the ground to allow farmworkers to collectively bargain," says FLOC Vice President Justin Flores. "Even though farmworkers are excluded from the [National] Labor Relations Act, we believe they should have rights and Reynolds should guarantee them in their supply chain."

Sold in over 111,000 retail outlets, the Vuse is the most popular e-cigarette brand in the country, with almost 30 percent of the market share, the Winston-Salem Journal reports. Flores says the way the product is made was an impetus for the boycott.

"Basically, it's a completely non-union product they're making," Flores says. "It's a very anti-union company."

Reynolds was the world's fourth-largest tobacco company until its acquisition by British American Tobacco (BAT) earlier this year, making BAT the largest publicly-traded tobacco company. Flores says the progress FLOC previously made with Reynolds on labor rights and working conditions came at the behest of what's now its parent company, which bought its first shares in 2004 and owned 42 percent of Reynolds before acquiring it outright.

FLOC wants Reynolds to commit to protecting farmworkers' freedom of association, which former Reynolds CEO and chair Susan Cameron called "unworkable." A spokesperson for Reynolds declined to comment for this story, but when the sale was confirmed the Winston-Salem Journal reported that the company said it "addresses farmworker issues in its supply chain with a program that focuses on training, audits and stakeholder engagement."

The company "has been engaged in constructive dialogue with both Reynolds and FLOC for some time, even before the deal to acquire the remaining balance of Reynolds shares was announced," a BAT spokesperson told Facing South in an email. "As a result of that dialogue, we are fully supportive of the approach taken by Reynolds and we continue to view the multi-stakeholder Farm Labor Practices Group in the U.S. as the best way to resolve these issues."

Convened in 2012 by tobacco giants Reynolds and Altria (formerly Philip Morris), the Farm Labor Practices Group brings together manufacturers, tobacco merchants, FLOC, the N.C. Agribusiness Council, U.S. Department of Labor, and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to address abuses in the supply chain identified in a 2011 Oxfam/FLOC report on North Carolina's tobacco industry including serious housing, wage, and safety violations. Although Reynolds declined to comment for this story, a spokesperson said back in July that 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."

But Flores takes a decidedly different view of the Farm Labor Practices Group. "They can barely agree on what the committee's name should be, let alone what they're going to do," he says. "We've been getting a little further along in the conversation, but 10 years is long enough, and we believe they're not taking us seriously."

FLOC has experience making companies take them seriously through boycotts. Its five-year boycott of North Carolina's Mt. Olive Pickle Co. to force improvements in working conditions on the state's cucumber farms ended in 2004 with a landmark contract between FLOC and the N.C. Growers Association. Today, FLOC represents over 10,000 farmworkers in North Carolina and has over 4,000 on its official membership rolls, according to Flores.

However, Reynolds — historically one of the most profitable companies in one of North Carolina's most profitable industries — is a bigger and more powerful target than Mt. Olive Pickle. Its clout can be seen in legislation passed in recent years by the N.C. General Assembly aimed at preventing it and other companies from forcing growers to ensure fair labor practices at farms in the state. For example, one law passed in 2013 declared that clauses in purchasing agreements requiring a grower to be unionized were "unenforceable."

"One thing that's been frustrating is that while we've been talking to these companies about these issues, they've been silent as these bills continue to pass," Flores says.

Support for the resolution among convention delegates was unanimous, and the AFL-CIO has added Reynolds' Vuse product to its official boycott list.

"We have given a lot to the tobacco companies and in return they have given us very little," said FLOC member and tobacco worker Jose Benjamin in support of the resolution. "We are the ones who work, and we are the ones who suffer."