chapter  5
27 Pages

‘A world in which many worlds fit’: on rhizomatic cosmopolitanism

Chapter 4 ended on such a note of despair, as we identified some of the forces and flows which produce separation, antagonism and resentment between the exploited and disenfranchised in different countries. It is worthwhile to take a moment to remind ourselves that this is only one side of the story. I want to begin this final chapter with a story of hope, a story of possibility, a story that reminds us of the things that human beings can do for, and with, one another. In autumn 2007, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) began a

campaign to protect the rights of fieldworkers in North Carolina who pick tobacco for RJ Reynolds. The North Carolina fieldworkers are often subject to inhumane working conditions, with inadequate breaks and water even at the height of the summer heat, frequently without proper safety equipment to protect them from the toxic chemicals in green tobacco. Over the previous two years, at least six workers had died in the fields, usually of heat stroke. FLOC wanted to unionize the workers as a way of ensuring that proper safety regulations were enforced. FLOC had previously had great success in North Carolina, where a boycott

against Mt Olive Pickles led to an agreement with the North Carolina Growers’ Association to unionize 6,000 fieldworkers. The RJ Reynolds campaign, however, was a more difficult case, as the pickers were not directly employed by RJ Reynolds, but instead by hundreds of smaller farms to whom RJ Reynolds subcontracted their tobacco growing. Thus, unionizing the workers would involve a long drawn-out, farm-by-farm process. This was further complicated by the fact that the vast majority of these workers were

migrant workers from Mexico, in America on guest worker visas. Such workers are notoriously difficult to unionize, since they find themselves uniquely vulnerable to reprisals such as blacklisting and possible deportation (as well as more overt forms of violence and repression without ready recourse). FLOC therefore decided to directly target RJ Reynolds, asking that CEO Susan Ivey meet with them and discuss unionizing the fieldworkers, a request which RJ Reynolds refused. FLOC then began a pressure campaign to try and force RJ Reynolds to meet with them. The kick-off to that campaign was a march, scheduled for late November 2007, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home of RJ Reynolds corporate headquarters. I was part of a group travelling from DC in a bus chartered by the AFL-

CIO to take part in the march. FLOC is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which had sent out messages to all of its member unions, informing them of the protest and urging them to participate if possible. Our bus consisted of a diverse group of unions, including members of the Postal Carriers, Machine Workers, Teamsters and a large contingent from the Seafarers’ Union. During the seven-hour bus ride south, a sort of ad hoc roundtable discussion on labour issues and immigration was taken up, a discussion which went counter to all of the common expectations of American views on Hispanic migrant labourers. Sentences that began with the phrase ‘The trouble with immigrants … ’ went on to say, ‘ … is that since they’re not born here, they don’t know what their rights are, so it’s easy for employers to exploit them’. The fear-mongering and xenophobia of a Lou Dobbs were entirely absent. In its place seemed to be a sense of solidarity with fellow workers, and of moral obligation to help those who were being oppressed. These impressions were only reinforced when we arrived in Winston-Salem.

The crowd of protestors, a few hundred strong, was split pretty evenly between the workers themselves (primarily Hispanic, and primarily guest workers) and their supporters, including allied union workers (primarily white or African-American), members of church groups, and anti-capitalist and human rights groups. Before the march, drummers and musicians energized the crowd. Speeches were given in both English and Spanish. Indeed, in defiance of all of the reactionary politics surrounding the question of language in America, throughout the protest everyone seemed to slide easily back and forth between English and Spanish. As seemingly one of the few present with no knowledge of Spanish whatsoever, I felt a bit like an outsider. In what has stuck with me as the most enduring image of that day, I watched as two members of the United Mine Workers, both at least in their sixties, good friends and clearly veterans of more than a few strikes, laughed as they learned to chant ‘The people, united, will never be divided!’ in Spanish. In the carnival-like atmosphere of the protest, the sense of ressentiment against exteriority which I spoke of in Chapter 4 seemed to be entirely absent, replaced with a joyous affect of community and mutual support. These men and women viewed each other as fellow travellers, workers, human beings, and gladly took part in each other’s languages, cultures and struggles.