Last fall, seven Mexican migrants won what was evidently the first-ever tobacco workers strike in Kentucky, a state long synonymous with “brown gold.”

Stephen Bartlett of FLOC
Stephen Bartlett, field organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)

With Stephen Bartlett and the Farm Laborers Organizing Committee in their corner, the H2A guest workers collected $20,000 in back wages and attorney’s fees from a Garrard County farmer. They joined the union, to boot.

“But they were not invited back this year,” said Bartlett, FLOC Kentucky field organizer. “That’s a great defect of the H2A program. The workers are dependent on farmers inviting them back, unless they are under a contract with FLOC.”

The Louisville-based Bartlett is still trying to sign up workers for FLOC, an AFL-CIO-affiliate. At the same time, he’s urging Kentuckians not to buy VUSE electronic cigarettes.

“VUSE is Reynolds Tobacco Company’s fasting-growing product,” he explained.

VUSE e-cigarette boycott

The nationwide boycott is designed to pressure big tobacco firms like Reynolds to guarantee farmworkers the right to unionize and bargain collectively for better wages, hours, and working conditions.

VUSE e-cigarette boycottProtestors are showing up monthly at convenience stores that sell the VUSE e-cigarettes. FLOC has targeted Circle K stores in Louisville.

“We leave letters explaining the boycott and ask store managers to send them to their regional supervisors or corporate higher-ups,” Bartlett said. “Though their hands are tied as to what products they carry in their stores, most of the managers are sympathetic when we explain what we’re doing and why.”

The first VUSE e-cigarette protest in Kentucky was at a Falls City Circle K near the University of Louisville campus on April 11, two days after the 11th anniversary of the murder of FLOC organizer Rafael Cruz in Mexico. Other protests are slated to follow in Lexington and Berea.

“We know Reynolds is concerned about the boycott because we are in frequent communication with them,” Bartlett said.

Farm workers worried about blacklisting

Meanwhile, he doesn’t know if the seven union workers were blacklisted for challenging the farmer and joining the union. “They didn’t want to go back and work for that grower, but they were unable to find new employers and become eligible for an H2A visa again.”

Bartlett said recruiting more union members can be slow going in Kentucky. “We visit farmworker camps, but the workers feel very vulnerable. They’re afraid of not being invited back.

“Unless they have a serious issue with a farmer, they generally shy away from signing up. But we will continue to visit and monitor conditions at farmworker camps.”

Volunteers needed for demonstrations, organizing

Meanwhile, Bartlett is looking for volunteers to help him organize farmworkers and to join VUSE e-cigarette demonstrations at convenience stores. The union organizer communicates with workers in Spanish, but he added that English-only speakers are welcome.

“While H2A workers visas tie them to their particular employer, it is difficult for the laborers to exercise their labor rights,” Bartlett said.

“The farmer has all the power over whether they will work the following year. He can fire them with little or no consequence if they question their pay, hours or working or living conditions in general.   Farmworkers need the right to organize to change this system that keeps them vulnerable, sometimes unfairly exploited, and afraid to speak out.”

Potential volunteers or anybody just wanting more information about FLOC may contact him by email at estebanbartlett@gmail.com. He can be reached by phone or text at 502-415-1080.

“We anticipate that groups could do an action once a month for an hour at an outlet that carries Reynolds VUSE e-cigarettes until we achieve our goals,” he said. “We have groups in dozens of cities from Raleigh to New York to Toledo mobilizing for this, and the history of boycotts promises this one has a good chance of winning too.”

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Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.