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A US Farmer Was Accused of Abusing His Workers. Then Big Tobacco Backed His Election

A few months later, Jackson sent another email to the lobbyist. This time, he forwarded a message from his own lawyer about a draft amendment to a bill. The bill would outlaw people asking for collective bargaining agreements when settling legal disputes—exactly what the farm workers were doing.

“If [the farm workers] insist on including union recognition as part of the settlement … that could be a problem for them if this revision becomes law,” Jackson’s lawyer wrote. “It could potentially be helpful to us.”

Jackson and the NC Farm Bureau worked to ensure the amendment was included in the 2017 Farm Act, a bill co-sponsored by Jackson. Last year, a federal court judged this section of the act to be unconstitutional. FLOC is still fighting a part of the law that prevents it from taking union dues directly from farm worker paychecks, a right afforded to all other private sector workers in North Carolina.

In fact, the day before the governor signed the act into law, the case against Jackson was settled (he did not agree to a collective bargaining agreement). But these emails—released recently as part of a tranche of documents included in a court case brought by FLOC against the act—reveal the Farm Bureau’s access to politicians in North Carolina and the hidden influence of Reynolds American in the corridors of power.

The NC Farm Bureau has emerged as a powerful anti-union voice in the state. Farm Bureau employee Michael Sherman could not have made the group’s position clearer: “Our members have adopted a policy that we are opposed to the unionization of farm workers,” he said during a deposition.

The group has “frequent” conversations with Reynolds American, another employee said. Last year, the company gave $25,000 to Keep Ag Growing, an organization run by the Farm Bureau that has campaigned for Republican candidates in state elections.

One of those conversations between Reynolds American and the NC Farm Bureau was about how the union was seeking an agreement with the cigarette maker that would mean farmers with unionised workers would get a higher price for their tobacco. Afterwards, the NC Farm Bureau drafted language for a bill that outlawed such agreements and was passed in 2013. FLOC’s former organizer Flores told the Bureau that Reynolds American has since “cited that law publicly as a reason why they can’t negotiate an agreement with us”.

Sherman also detailed the remarkable access the organization has enjoyed to state politics, drafting bills and strategising with a select group of Republican lawmakers, including Jackson and another tobacco farmer-turned-politician, David Lewis, on how to get them passed. The NC Farm Bureau did not respond to questions about its lobbying and its relationship with Reynolds American.

A memorial to farm workers’ activism stands near the offices of Reynolds—whose dollars have funded efforts to weaken unions.

Jackson has thrown his weight behind other bills that have affected farm workers. As chair of the North Carolina Senate appropriations committee, he oversaw drastic cuts to the budget of Legal Aid of North Carolina, whose lawyers have been instrumental in representing the state’s farm workers, including against Jackson. The cuts forced the group to lay off up to 30 of its lawyers.

And last year, he was the co-sponsor of a bill that would have attempted to shield employers from being sued for retaliation by employees—the type of claim he himself has faced. The amendment was widely criticized and he later softened the language of the bill.

This has all been a part of what McMillan points to as a culture of anti-unionization in the state.

“There’s legal challenges. There’s cultural barriers, as well, in North Carolina,” she said. “There’s a lingering culture of fear about unions and stereotypes and misinformation that I think sometimes makes it difficult to organize.”

In her view, it has become more difficult to organize in North Carolina since Republicans took control of North Carolina’s general assembly in 2010: “We’ve definitely seen more anti-worker laws or bills proposed.”

Facing the Future

In recent years, Reynolds American has acknowledged the importance of farm workers having the freedom to join a union. The company has enshrined in its supplier code of conduct a minimum set of standards, including a safe environment and freedom of association for workers.

“At least now they will admit that they have some responsibility to the workers in their supply chain,” Flores says. “After years of pressure, they’ve kind of come from ‘not our problem’ to ‘well, it is our problem’.”

Despite this, Reynolds has supported politicians and organizations who have pitched farmers against the union. “There are predatory folks that make a good living coming around and getting people to be dissatisfied,” one lawmaker and Farm Bureau ally said in support of the 2017 Farm Act.

This campaign against farm workers unionizing has come at a time when more and more growers are relying on the H-2A scheme, particularly since the Trump administration’s attempts to crack down on undocumented workers (who account for more than half of the nation’s farm workers, according to some estimates). Despite the feelings in political circles, Lee Wicker, the director of the North Carolina Growers Association, told the Bureau that its collective bargaining agreement with FLOC largely succeeded. It gives workers a way to raise issues and for farmers to find solutions without the expense of going to court, he explained.

“I think it’s working,” Wicker said. “Naturally there’s tensions that arise but, for now, our growers have decided that this is the preferable way to resolve issues.”

Wicker points to other, more pressing issues facing farmers, namely an inability to plan future labor costs. Farmers do not find out the set wage for the following year’s H-2A workers until November, just months before many start arriving.

Growers also feel squeezed by cigarette makers, who grade and set the price of tobacco once it is grown and harvested. Tobacco companies can “come up with anything they want as an excuse not to buy your crop and if you don’t have insurance you get nothing”, one North Carolina farmer who supplies a subsidiary of Reynolds American told the Bureau.

Tobacco can now be sourced more cheaply outside of the US, in countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi, and prices in the US have not matched the increase in labor and production costs. A crop that for so long paid the bills for American farmers is now in steady decline. In 2020, the trade war with China—a major market for North Carolina’s tobacco—saw the state’s production sink to its lowest level in nearly 100 years.

For now at least, the harvest continues. Some farmers fear that this summer may be their last growing the crop that once shaped life in the state. Many have stopped already. But as per the last seven years, Carlos is back from Mexico, the temperatures already reaching record highs.

“It’s very hard work here in the fields—we feel the extreme heat,” he said in the shade on that Sunday in June, as he swiped through photos of his daughter’s drawings. But he and his fellow farm workers are allowed more breaks when necessary. “I like it where I am,” he says.

Roberto returned to North Carolina, too, and chuckled when asked if he would ever work for Jackson again: “I don’t think he’d take me back.”

Meanwhile, Jackson is seeking re-election in November. His campaign has already raised $600,000, more than almost every other candidate in the state. Much of this support is from industry groups and big business. He’s running unopposed.

“If I don’t die or go to prison and I can go vote for myself, I should be OK,” he joked on the podcast.

Last year, in a letter seen by the Bureau, Reynolds American told farm workers’ rights campaigners that “BAT and RJ Reynolds agree with you: Employers must not retaliate against workers for exercising their rights.”

In April this year, the company wrote Jackson another check.

*Names changed to protect identity.

(Except where noted, photographs by Cornell Watson for Mother Jones and TBIJ)

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