American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
December 2016

Farmworkers Teach Students a Lesson

Mark Sherry, University of Toledo

FLOC demands justice in tobacco fields photograph by Laurie Michaels
Laurie Michaels

FLOC demands justice in tobacco fields

Students from the University of Toledo have demonstrated what a little money and a lot of motivation can do, during a project funded by the ASA’s Community Action Research Initiative (CARI) in 2013. With $3,000 funding, they conducted ethnographic research with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), and many came away with life-changing experiences.

The social injustice experienced by the farmworkers in the fields was a major research finding. Students saw workers earning miniscule pay, children working in the camps to help their families earn money, and they were stunned about the conditions in the overcrowded camps with filthy toilets, dirty mattresses, leaking roofs, and rodents.

The CARI grant expressly forbids the use of the funds for travel. However, because of the energy, enthusiasm, and skills of the students, FLOC paid for the rental of busses for the students to attend the Reynolds Tobacco Shareholders’ Meeting in Winston-Salem, NC. This might not sound like much to some people, but a few of the students had never travelled outside of Ohio.

Experiencing a Shareholders Meeting

FLOC bought one share in Reynolds Tobacco for every student. This amazing experiential learning opportunity enabled them to attend an annual shareholders meeting. Not surprisingly, this is something that none of them had ever done. They were learning a lot about business corporations, shareholding, and attending large official meetings. In addition, the students were encouraged by FLOC to speak at the shareholders meeting—a nerve-racking but valuable experience!

Reynolds bans questions at their Annual Meeting, but people could raise “points of interest.” While Reynolds Tobacco Inc. representatives would not answer questions at the meeting, they did write to one student about her question approximately one week later. Others waited months.

At the start of the project, none of the students knew how community organization or labor campaigns operated, but FLOC trained them in community organizing. FLOC also made a concerted effort to include them—every week, they participated in national and international telephone hookups with organizers from North Carolina and Mexico. Students got to work extensively with Baldemar Velasquez, a MacArthur genius who had worked with Cesar Chavez and marched with Martin Luther King.

Impact on Students

One student, who was a waitress at a local bar, developed fundraising skills. She organized a fundraising event at the bar, with a band that provided both English and Spanish music, and a percentage of the money was donated to FLOC. Such fundraising and organizational skills will be valuable for her in the long-run, wherever she works.

Laurie Michaels, a graduate student, published a one-page story in the ASA Labor and Labor Movements Section newsletter about her research. She learned about Green Tobacco Syndrome, which many farmworkers experience, and wrote papers on “Tobacco-Related Cancer” and “Mexico” for the SAGE Encyclopedia of Cancer and Society. Michaels also created a PowerPoint presentation that was presented at a major national conference between representatives of the farmworkers and Reynolds Tobacco. Michaels is now working on her PhD in sociology at Ohio State University. 

A few of the students received paid work opportunities in the summer after they did this fieldwork—they helped to develop a membership database for FLOC. Given that Toledo is one of the poorest big cities in the nation, and so many of the students were themselves impoverished, first-generation students, every little bit of income helps.

After this experience, one student decided to become a social worker to help address the issues she had seen, and another student went into public health hoping to implement literacy and public health campaigns for these workers and their families. Another subsequently earned a master’s degree in sociology and is now starting her PhD. One of the Latino students who did the  FLOC internship has become a lot more involved in the Latino community as well as among Latino organizations, including student organizations. Another student, who was very affected by the language barriers she saw, is pursuing a career in teaching English as a second language. 

Nico Covarrubias, one of the students, commented, “My experience with FLOC was amazing and truly eye-opening for me. I believe that my time spent volunteering not only benefited me academically but holistically. My internship at FLOC led me to want to pursue my education past my undergraduate degree and hopefully work in the nonprofit sector at some point in my life. I am currently working on my master’s degree in higher education with aspirations to work with TRIOS or Upward Bound programs that help and serve the community much like FLOC.”