How a tobacco company finances the political ambitions of a mega farmer that hurts workers in North Carolina

Mother Jones: “A North Carolina Farmer Was Accused of Abusing His Workers. Then Big Tobacco Backed His Election.” The Spanish version also ran in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, online and in print.

Much of my reporting as an investigative correspondent for Enlace Latino NC is about the challenges faced by immigrant workers in our food system. This year I collaborated with journalist Ben Stockton to follow the money trail and dig deeper into how politics and corporate interests affect everyday labor issues – often stifling workers and clamping down on any progress for them.

Brent Jackson has been described as “the only mega-farmer” in the North Carolina Senate. He is also running an uncontested race this year.

“Anything that moves in agriculture policy in North Carolina moves through Brent Jackson,” said Justin Flores, an organizer formerly with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

Flores has helped workers win cases against Jackson, who runs a 6,000-acre farm with his wife Debbie and son Rodney in Sampson County.

“Here [is] someone who in his business life is a tobacco farmer who has been taken to court on more than one occasion for various problems with his treatment of employees on his farm –  namely, not paying migrant workers properly and blacklisting them when they tried to join a union,” said Stockton, Bureau reporter who has been covering tobacco for years.

We spoke to a few of Jackson’s former workers, who later settled lawsuits against the farmer with help from Flores at FLOC.

But just 150 miles away from the Jackson farm, Reynolds Americans, the global cigarette manufacturer in Winston-Salem, not only buys Jackson’s tobacco but has also helped bankroll his election campaign.

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In his public life as an elected official, Jackson has a profound impact on the ability of those very same people who work for him to effectively organize. Our investigation uncovers how even though Reynolds claims to support freedom of association within its global supply chain, its political donations tell a different story altogether.

Jackson declined to speak to us for this story. When we approached Reynolds American about our findings, it pointed to its commitment to ethical farming practice and said it promotes “a robust culture of compliance to ensure all farmers with whom we contract meet or exceed all US laws regarding farm worker employment”.

Our special podcast episode takes you behind the scenes of the journalistic process, featuring worker voices. Listen in English here 👇

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