Workers Target Wawa Supermarket for Better Wages, Working Conditions
By Ben Markeson
December 14, 2012
The parking lot of an Orlando-area convenience
store resounded Dec. 9 with chants of "Wawa,
escucha! / Estamos en la lucha!" (rough translation:
"Wawa, listen! / We mean business!") and "Wawa,
shame on you / Farmworkers are people, too."
About 40 farmworker allies targeted the Wawa store
in an action in solidarity with FLOC - the Farm
Labor Organizing Committee (AFL-CIO) - and
agricultural workers on tobacco farms in North
The activists wanted to remind Wawa, a major mid-
Atlantic convenience store chain which recently
moved into the Florida market, that those
farmworkers are part of its supply chain. Wawa's
600 stores sell cigarettes made by North Carolina-
based Reynolds American from tobacco grown and
harvested by the farmworkers. This, say the activists
from YAYA (Youth and Young Adult Network of the
National Farmworker Ministry), gives Wawa a
responsibility to take steps to help improve the
farmworkers' living and working conditions.
In a letter dated Oct. 1 to Wawa CEO Howard B.
Stoeckel, YAYA asks the company to "inform
Reynolds and McLane Co. Inc. [Reynolds' main
grocery distributor] that many Florida consumers
want Reynolds to work with FLOC to develop a
written agreement establishing a process
guaranteeing freedom of association and a right to
collective bargaining for tobacco farm workers in the
Reynolds supply chain."
"Although Reynolds American does not directly
employ farm workers, because it contracts with
tobacco growers it has the ability to influence grower
standards that directly affect the living and working
conditions of farm workers, both within its supply
chain and even beyond," YAYA explains.
Emily Helm, president of the Orlando-area YAYA
branch, which organized the action here, said
recognition of farmworkers' rights to organize and to
collectively bargain "would ensure that farmworkers
have a voice in the tobacco supply chain."
"In this supply chain, Reynolds benefits the most
from [the farmworkers'] labor. Wawa, as a business
that sells Reynolds products, also benefits from this
labor," said Helm. "I think Wawa has a responsibility
here, and I think it's very clear that there is
something they can do."
YAYA's action was planned to coincide with
International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10), the 66th
anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations
Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the
rights of free association and of workers to join a
The Dec. 9 action also was prompted by the
repeated refusal of Charlene Marko-Heim, Wawa's
Florida regional manager, to meet with YAYA. A
delegation from YAYA went into the store to deliver
the letter, which included another request for a
meeting with Marko-Heim.
On its website and in its corporate literature, Wawa
states that two of its "core values" are to "value
people" and to "do the right thing."
"That's all we're asking [Wawa] for, is just do the
right thing" for farmworkers, said YAYA member
Melissa Maguire-Maniau. "We want them to not just
put words on paper, but actually show that
FLOC has been meeting with Reynolds since June of
this year, but wants the company to hold direct
meetings with farmworkers so that its executives
can see for themselves what YAYA calls "the squalid
living and deplorable working conditions facing
many tobacco farm workers."
"The situation for tobacco farmworkers in North
Carolina is dire," says YAYA. "A report from Oxfam
America and FLOC released last year ... showed that
many farm workers often live in labor camps with
inadequate or non-functioning toilets, showers, and
other substandard conditions. Due to these
conditions, tobacco farmworkers suffer from
illnesses resulting from nicotine poisoning,
exposure to dangerous pesticides, and working long
hours from below poverty wages."
The Oxfam America/FLOC report, "A state of fear:
Human rights abuses in North Carolina's tobacco
industry," found that farmworkers experienced
widespread wage and equal pay violations in North
Carolina's tobacco fields.
Of 103 farmworkers, some of them undocumented,
who were interviewed for the report, 22 (about one
in four) reported that they were paid less than the
federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Fifty-one
reported being paid the minimum wage while only
11 said that they earned more than the minimum
wage. Undocumented farmworkers toiling side-by-
side with those who had H-2A (agricultural) visas
reported that they were paid less the H-2A workers,
whose wages were set at $7.25 to around $10 an
hour, depending on location.
Other groups with a presence at the Dec. 9 action
included SLAP-Student Labor Action Project, from
the University of Central Florida; Central Florida
Jobs With Justice; and Dream Defenders, a recently-
formed Florida-based activist group of progressive
students and young people.
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