From left, United National Officer Rhys McCarthy, FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez, British Parliament member James Sheridan, Parliament member Ian Lavery meet in the House of Commons.
SPECIAL TO BLADE/Aaron Chappell
LONDON — British Members of Parliament pledged today to help Toledo-based union leader Baldemar Velasquez in his fight against tobacco giants.
Two members of Parliament with a history of championing labor rights met with the Ohio activist in London and vowed to support his campaign to stamp out the human rights abuses of migrant workers in tobacco fields.
Labor party members Jim Sheridan and Ian Lavery listened as Mr. Velasquez detailed some of the atrocious conditions he said people are forced to live and work under in North Carolina.
He recounted the story of one man who died in 2001 after complaining of heat exhaustion. Rubano Ramirez went to rest beneath a tree and his decomposed body was discovered eight days later, Mr. Velasquez said.
Mr. Velasquez, president and founder of Toledo’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, also shared his own memories of growing up as a migrant farm worker picking cherries, apples, oranges, and onions to help his family make ends meet.
“Agricultural workers have historically been excluded from labor laws in the United States,” he told them.
“The only laws that are being legislated is to further create exploitation of agriculture workers.”
The hour-long meeting took place inside a committee room in the Houses of Parliament, the epicenter of British government.
Both MPs expressed surprise that the situation Mr. Velasquez described was able to exist in the United States, equating it to the kind of conditions one would expect in an under-developed nation.
“We have got to do everything we possibly can, meetings like this are very important … It’s imperative to keep up the good work,” Mr. Lavery said.
“It’s always a small few that make a massive difference,” he added.
Mr. Velasquez’s journey to London had two objectives.
One was to meet with the elected officials and highlight his cause.
He also intended to lobby British American Tobacco executives with local union leaders and invite them to see the working conditions in North Carolina for themselves.
British American Tobacco owns more than 42 percent of tobacco company Reynolds America Inc.
A British American Tobacco spokesman said: "British American Tobacco has a long history of working constructively with organized labor and we have always believed the best approach to contentious issues is to engage through dialogue. We had a productive meeting with FLOC today and they have raised some concerns which we will be investigating further."
Mr. Sheridan, who worked in shipyards before entering politics, offered to raise the issue in the House of Commons as an early day motion, a way elected officials can draw attention to a campaign in front of other members of Parliament.
He also offered to get a number of MPs to sign a letter to British American Tobacco expressing their concerns over its relationship with Reynolds America Inc. and its treatment of workers.
“We are with you all the way,” Mr. Sheridan told Mr. Velasquez.
“They shouldn’t be working in these conditions or even living in these conditions in this day and age.”
Rhys McCarthy, national officer for food drink and tobacco at UNITE the Union, chaired the meeting which was also attended by a number of representatives of religious organizations.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Mr. Velasquez said after the meeting.
“I think the biggest thing that came out was the offer to enact some action in Parliament. I think that is huge because that’s going to put an enormous amount of pressure on British American Tobacco to do something about he inequities in the supply chain,” he said.
“It’s above and beyond… to me that was phenomenal.”
Reynolds officials weren’t invited to the meeting, but company leaders late Wednesday night submitted a letter warning the British that they have no legal right to interfere in the tobacco company’s American operations. British American Tobacco is the company’s major stockholder.
The letter, which was signed by Reynolds Vice President John S. Wilson III, says Reynolds is blameless and powerless to stop any abuses because it contracts with independent contractors who operate the tobacco fields.
Mr. Wilson also said in the letter, which was obtained by The Blade, that FLOC is trying to force Reynolds into appointing FLOC as the official union for the tobacco workers, which it says is a violation of North Carolina law.
In the afternoon, Mr. Velasquez and Mr. McCarthy planned to join IUF general secretary Ron Oswald and Owen Tudo, head of EU and International Relations for the Trades Union Congress, for a face-to-face meeting with British American Tobacco bosses.
Blade staff writer Federico Martinez contributed to this report.