A group of about 10 students paid a visit to the basement of the University bookstore in Ferren Mall early yesterday morning. But unlike most students, they were not there to buy books.
Instead the students, part of United Students Against Sweatshops, found success in their campaign to stop the sale of R.J. Reynolds cigarettes on campus.
“We had a small victory — we had Reynolds [cigarette] products pulled from the campus stores,” said Beth Breslaw, USAS vice president. “This [victory] is only the first leg of the journey.”
After weeks of protesting against the R.J. Reynolds cigarettes, the group met with John Cusick, general manager of the Barnes and Noble bookstores on campus, and received his approval of the campaign resulting in select campus stores taking certain cigarettes off their shelves.
Four campus stores as of yesterday afternoon are removing R.J. Reynolds-brand cigarettes, including camel cigarettes and Natural American Spirit , from their shelves. These stores include the Livingston Student Center bookstore, the Student Activities Center on the College Avenue campus, the Busch Campus Center and Ferren Mall bookstore.
Student Life runs the Cook/Douglass Barnes and Noble and the Cook Campus Center store and would need to be addressed separately, said Breslaw, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
University students held signs yesterday displaying pictures of the harsh conditions within a R.J. Reynolds worker camp in North Carolina, with the intention of seeing Cusick to stop the sale of these cigarettes on campus.
According to an open letter R.J. Reynolds issued in October 2011, Reynolds American and R.J. Reynolds state that they support efforts to ensure workers in all parts of the industry have safe working conditions.
R.J. Reynolds has contracts with independent farms across the United States, including ones across North Carolina for tobacco-leaf products, according to the letter.
“Those contracts require the farmers to comply with all laws — including labor laws covering issues such as employment, and working and living conditions of workers,” the letter reads. “We meet with growers regularly and encourage them to follow all applicable laws and regulations.”
Breslaw said the University’s chapter of USAS delivered letters to the general managers of all seven bookstores on campus within the past two months and emailed the letter with their requests to see Cusick.
The letter, written on behalf of USAS, Rutgers University Campus Coalition Against Trafficking, Sociedad Estudiantil Dominicana, Rutgers United Students Coalition, Women’s Center Coalition, Rutgers University for the Welfare of Animals, Rutgers Undergraduate Geography Society and the Asian American Leadership Cabinet, addressed the group’s struggle to reach him and their mission.
In the meeting, Cusick said he did not receive the emails or the letters but read the letter for the first time yesterday and was taken aback by the photos of the cramped work camps.
“Jesus Christ, in my mind that is happening in Honduras or somewhere like that,” he said while looking at the photos of the living quarters of the workers on the posters.
Of the 700 Barnes and Noble bookstores on college campuses across the nation, only a handful of those stores sell cigarettes, which suggests why the issue was not addressed, Cusick said.
“We originally didn’t want to sell cigarettes when we got here,” he said.
The company that ran the Ferren Mall bookstore before Barnes and Noble sold cigarettes in the store, Cusick said.
Cusick said he would not be able to make a written statement in support of the campaign until he contacts Joel Friedman, vice president of General Merchandising and Store Construction/Design at Barnes & Noble College Booksellers.
Breslaw and others became involved in the cause after visiting work camps and tobacco fields in Dudley, N.C.
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a labor organization part of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization, hosted the USAS trip to North Carolina over the summer to visit work camps and tobacco fields, Breslaw said.
After arriving in Dudley, USAS president Rich Garzon said the workers lived in residence halls made of plywood with no insulation or air conditioning.
Garzon said it is strange to think these kinds of places exist in the United States.
“It was kind of weird. I’ve been abroad and I’ve seen sweatshops, and this was basically a bad sweatshop and it was in North Carolina,” said Garzon, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
Breslaw, who also visited the farm, said the workers have no protection from the elements in their plywood units and have difficulty accessing clean water.
Garzon said the people living on these tobacco farms do not receive water from a municipal source.
“There are restrooms which are basically disgusting. All the faucets and the toilets and everything is [covered] with hard-water stains,” he said. “I don’t know where they get their water from.”
When interacting with the workers on the farm, Breslaw found out that they are required to work 12 hours a day with no break, no water and no bathroom facilities during work hours.
She said people who work in the fields suffer from tobacco-related illnesses from the nicotine that is absorbed through the skin.
“Even though it’s like 100 degrees outside and there’s no breeze, they have to have every surface of their skin covered,” Breslaw said. “So they have to work in 100-degree weather in gloves and socks.”
Breslaw said she heard the stories of the immigrant workers who are trying to make their children’s lives better.
“That really made me want to bring inspiration back to people who haven’t seen it and make the invisible issue visible,” she said.
Cusick said although he does not usually speak for the company, he would continue to reach out to the group.
“As a company, we do not tend to tolerate this,” Cusick said to the protestors. “We will work with [the students] on this.”
By Anastasia Millicker and Yashmin Patel