Tobacco Farm Workers on Strike in eastern Kentucky

We thank Kentuckian Michelle Blau of the AFL-CIO in Washington for sending us this news release. Contact: Stephen Bartlett, [email protected],  502-415-1080 

PAINT LICK, KY – Yesterday, seven tobacco farm workers who come from Nayarit, Mexico through the H2A guest worker program initiated a strike on Wayne Day’s farm. For the past three years, Day systematically cheated the workers out of the minimal wage. While the H2A minimal wage in Kentucky now stands at $10.92 per hour, Day paid the workers only $7 per hour in 2015, $8 in 2016 and $8 again in 2017. Additionally, the workers were at times paid by piece rate, earning them as little as $3 an hour despite working at a fast pace.

"We are on strike because of the unfair pay of the grower who hopes to get away with not paying us the correct wage.  We came to work for a better life for our families through sacrifice and sweat. But what we have been paid is insufficient. Even working at a high speed, we cannot earn a living wage on this farm."  said Cristian Santillan, one of the leaders of the striking workers. 

This year, the workers joined the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and asked Day to recognize the union, negotiate with FLOC, and pay back all stolen wages. On Sep 19, Stephen Bartlett, a FLOC organizer, delivered the legal demand letter to Day. The grower responded by saying that if the workers don't like the wages he pays, they can return to Mexico. "This tactic is not going to work with these workers," said Bartlett.  "They came to the US to support their families and communities back home, and they are going to fight for what is rightfully theirs and the wage promised to them in their work contract.”

On Oct 11, the workers initiated a strike, refusing to work until Day pays them back the stolen wages and agrees to pay them the minimal wage going forward. The FLOC members are also demanding a response from the tobacco giant Universal Leaf who purchases the tobacco that the workers harvest for Day. On Sunday, Oct 15, FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez and a FLOC support delegation will be visiting the workers to show solidarity for what may be the first tobacco farmworker strike in recent KY history. 

FLOC is a farmworker union that represents over 10,000 farmworkers in NC, SC, KY and OH. This strike comes as part of a larger FLOC effort to make structural changes and improve the working conditions and wages of farm workers across several states. Since 2007, the union has been calling on tobacco purchasers to spend more money buying US tobacco to support growers and improve conditions for the tobacco farm workers in their supply chain.