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Top Labor Organizer: The South Is Not Lost, We Will Help N.C. Tobacco Workers

Updated with a quote from the president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents workers at Philip Morris.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- The labor movement, undeterred by the UAW's defeat at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., is continuing efforts to organize in the South, particularly in North Carolina, where the Farm Labor Organizing Committee plans a spring campaign to organize tobacco field workers.

"We're supporting significant efforts by affiliates to organize throughout the South, workers in all sectors and occupations," said Elizabeth Bunn, director of organizing for the AFL-CIO, in an interview. In particular, she said, "You will see, in the coming months, unions with more resources helping the poorest of the poor, the tobacco workers in North Carolina."

Early this week the executive council of the AFL-CIO met in Houston, where the failed Chattanooga election was an overriding topic. Bunn said the most unusual aspect of the election was that while unions frequently encounter opposition and threats from employers, "in this case the employer was very respectful but outside folks intervened, not just with opinions, but with threats."

Not to say the failure had a bright side, but "there is no question that the events in Chattanooga will help shed a light on what workers confront when they try to form a union," Bunn said.

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She said organizing efforts continue in the South among both private and public sector employees. National Nurses United has organized 7,000 workers in the South, largely in Texas. The Service Employees International Union, although not an AFL-CIO member, is growing in the South and elsewhere, largely by organizing health care workers.

Also, the merger between American (AAL - Get Report)  and US Airways brings together Dallas-based American's 6,000 passenger service agents, who are not unionized, and US Airways' 6,600 airport agents and passenger service agents, who are members of the Airline Customer Service Employee Association, an alliance between the CWA and the Teamsters.

FLOC's North Carolina campaign is slated to begin in April and May, when tobacco workers begin to arrive in the state. "The campaign will heat up in June once the topping and suckering work begins," said Justin Flores, FLOC vice president. (Topping is the removal of flowers while suckering is the pruning of leaves from the tobacco plant). 

Flores said the initial focus of the campaign will be in eastern North Carolina counties "where many workers who are not under union contract have already joined the union." He said the campaign will likely spread into Kentucky and Tennessee. He said farmworkers want to address issues including "housing, dignified bathrooms and, mattresses; work conditions (such as) water, breaks and pesticide protection; wages and other issues.

"All of this will focus on the complicity of the tobacco industry in the abysmal conditions tobacco farmworkers are facing in their supply chains," Flores said.

Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists, said the IAM will help FLOC by paying the salaries of two Spanish-speaking organizers. IAM represents workers at Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris USA, a division of Altria (MO - Get Report), and the nation's leading cigarette manufacturer.

"We're heavily invested in helping FLOC," Buffenbarger said. "Our people at Philip Morris are well-paid and we have the people to make it possible to help." IAM "was founded in the South" and has thousands of members throughout the region, he added.

Said Bunn: "It's outrageous that there are millions of workers living in absolute poverty in a country where the inequality of wealth is at historic proportions. As a labor movement, we're having lots of discussions about how to address that inequality."

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

To contact this writer, click here.

Follow @tedreednc

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