Robert J Willis

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Robert Willis begins the interview by describing how he began his legal career working with migrant workers in Florida. He then explains the situation of farm workers in North Carolina, describing the conditions of labor camps. He has been working in North Carolina since 1982, so he describes the changes that he has and has not seen over the years and the growing number of Latino workers in the state. He also explains that the exploitation of a farm worker greatly increases if they are undocumented and that there is significantly higher number of protections for farm workers on H2A visas that are members of unions. Through Robert’s work with Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), he is able to speak to the importance of supply chain organizing, stating that the changes need to be made by corporations that have supply contracts with growers. He describes the ongoing campaign against Reynolds Tobacco Company. He also describes his experiences in Mexico and the inefficiency of the consulate as a result of not having enough employees. Finally, he makes a few comments about day laborers, explaining that wage theft statutes could be the most effective way of legally holding employers accountable for not paying day laborers.



ELIZABETH WILLIS: This is Elizabeth Willis interviewing Robert Willis. It is April 6th 2012 and it is 10:45 in the morning. We are in his office in Pittsboro, North Carolina. So, just to start off if you just want to tell me a little bit about-- a little about yourself, where you are from and what you do and all that.

ROBERT WILLIS: I'm from North Carolina and I'm an attorney. I've been an attorney since 1979. I practiced as a lawyer in Florida representing migrant farm workers from 1979 to 1982 and then came back to North Carolina and represented migrant farm workers with legal services program again from 1982 through 1989. Then I went into private practice and have represented occasionally migrant farm workers since then and other low income immigrant workers. I also have worked for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, as their counsel in North Carolina since 1997.

EW: And how did you get into this work? How did you decide to work with migrant workers and other immigrants?

RW: 'Cause I wanted to work for workers.

EW: Did you meet someone and that made you decide to do or did you learn about it in law school? How did you learn about the issues that were going on?

RW: Basically when I was, last two years of law school. Well, I went to law school to work-- do work for-- legal work for workers basically and it was pretty much that nebulescent idea already certainly with the idea of organizing or helping workers organize but-- And so the last two years of law school I spent a lot of time trying to get a job in that field working for workers which was not too easy since I wanted to work in the South and there are not too many unions in the South. So, one of the people I-- or one of the outfits that I wrote to was a Florida rural legal services that did work for migrant farm workers on the East Coast basically and so, I kind of stumbled into them and have been doing migrant farm work ever since.

EW: And can you explain a little bit what the situation is like in North Carolina right now for migrant farm workers or workers in general?

RW: Well, with respect to farm labor basically, the majority of the farm labor that's-- or farm laborers that are working on a migrant basis in North Carolina are undocumented which means in common parlance that they are illegal. There is a substantial number, six or seven thousand, that also come in on guest visas or guest worker visas otherwise known as H2A visas. And those workers are organized and represented by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, otherwise known as FLOC. The workers that are not organized and that are coming in undocumented by and large are experiencing illegal working conditions in terms of conditions of employment and subject to super exploitation because of their undocumented status.

EW: How does it help or how does it change the conditions for workers to have unions or to have FLOC present? What has FLOC been doing and what is your role with them?

RW: Excuse me. [eating]

EW: You're fine.

RW: FLOC gives workers that it represents and hopefully workers that it will be representing as part of our supply chain organizing a means by which they can voice their grievances and resolve them in a way and in a timeline that allows them to effectively be addressed instead of having to resort to litigation that takes years and doesn't really address the fundamental power problem or power between the employer and the employee and also between the people and the top of the supply chain like the tobacco companies for whom the workers that we represent harvest tobacco. So, with an opportunity for example to resolve a problem immediately and require an employer to resolve a problem immediately if, for example, there's dissatisfaction with work performance or dissatisfaction with anything else or dissatisfaction with wage payment that capacity to do that in a work context is invaluable basically in terms of the worker having better work conditions. It also helps in terms of supply chain organizing to require the processors to put more money into the supply chain so that the grower is not pinched between the demands of the worker and the grower's cost in terms of what he or she has to pay to produce a crop. So, we get Reynolds Tobacco Company for example to contribute more money to their supply contracts with the growers as part of a three party agreement and everybody beneath Reynolds is able to function at a higher level and a better level for everybody below.

EW: And I believe that you have a campaign or something against Reynolds right now. Is that going on right now?

RW: That's correct.

EW: Could you tell me a little bit more about that and what you guys are trying to do as far as pressuring the company to change their policies?

RW: Basically engaged in supply chain organizing with Reynolds American at their stockholder meetings, at their stockholder meetings and marketing outlets of their products. For example, Kangaroo stores market a lot of tobacco products that Reynolds puts out so we're engaged in discussions with the people that own Kangaroo stores. We are also engaged in discussions with British American Tobacco representatives and other tobacco companies and unions that work on the tobacco for those other tobacco companies in other countries. I'm scheduled to attend a meeting of the shareholders of British American Tobacco in London in-- in this month along with the president of the union to have more discussions about that. And later there will be more discussions that have been ongoing with international worker representatives in countries both in London-- I mean, in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe.

EW: And how do you feel? Do you feel like it's going well?

RW: Yes, I do feel like it's going well. You know, it's not anything that happens overnight; basically you have to be persistent. Reynolds American Tobacco Company is big basically and they have no legal obligation to talk with the-- the workers that I represent. Well, not that I represent but that my union represents, or the union I work for I should say represents. There's a lot of responses that are similar to, Why are you bothering us? 'Cause we have no legal responsibility. But in terms of economic responsibility and moral responsibility, they have all of that and they have the power to do-- to make the changes that need to be made.

EW: And what are your feelings about the H2A visa program? What kind of improvements do you think should be made in that program?

RW: Well, in North Carolina, there are organized H2A workers and unorganized H2A workers. Those who are organized have access to a grievance procedure, have access to a bid system where they don't, if they are experiencing problems in returning to North Carolina between work years because of whatever discrimination or dislocations that they may perceive to exist or are actually experiencing in Mexico through recruiters down there who are subject to the immediate control of their employers in North Carolina. They can obtain work in North Carolina by submitting a bid directly through the union and processing their work requests that way basically to avoid all of the extracurriculars, let's put it that way, activities of the recruiters in Mexico. So, those kinds of systems to address grievances and discrimination and retaliation are not available to any H2A worker who is not organized in North Carolina so they are basically subject to their employers whim and their recruiters whim in terms of whether-- their continued livelihood and their work conditions while they are here in North Carolina. There are a lot of laws and regulations that say what is supposed to happen but as with any law or regulation, the will to enforce and the capacity to enforce determine what those-- whether those laws and regulations have any meaning basically. And so for a worker who doesn't have access to a grievance procedure and doesn't have access to a bid system to ensure worker return without discrimination those workers are basically up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

EW: And what are the conditions for workers that you've seen? Can you describe the lab-- sorry-- the labor camps in North Carolina? Just a little bit about what it's like.

RW: Well, there's a report that just came out concerning the-- I think it came out from Wake Forest University from Mr. Arcury, A-r-c-u-r-y that said that some large percentage, I think higher than 75 percent of labor camps in North Carolina had I think something like three or more violations of labor camp standards. No labor camp is supposed to be occupied unless it complies with all standards. That's part of what the grievance procedure allows us to address in the context of the growers by whom we're-- our workers are employed. So if there are problems with the labor camps, safety or health standards then we can address those immediately and they usually get corrected immediately if not sooner. But that's not the case, obviously, with respect to many other labor camps and there was a report that FLOC put out with Oxfam also that documented serious problems with labor camps standard compliance for workers living-- undocumented workers living in labor camps also. So it's pretty much my experience, and I've been doing it since 1982 in North Carolina, that labor camps, unless they are in a situation where you do have organized workers, have historically had and still have problems with compliance with the standards they're supposed to comply with and not just minor ones.

EW: And so you've been doing this work in North Carolina for thirty years, then?

RW: Yeah.

EW: And what been the changes that you've seen? Have you seen any improvements or have things been pretty much the same? What are the differences since then?

RW: Well, when I started in 1982, there was no union in North Carolina so that's the biggest change I've seen basically and by and large the only change I've seen. I mean I've represented workers and their work. You know I filed a lot of lawsuits and so did other people basically but it was only effective temporarily, the workers that were involved. And I think perhaps those lawsuits did have some effect in terms of most farmers recognized legally, or being forced to recognize, that legally they were jointly responsible with farm labor contractors for the conditions of the workers that were harvesting the crops that they were growing. But beyond that, in terms of the actual conditions that the workers were working under, it didn't make any change as far as I can see substantively in terms of the wages that were being paid or whether they were being paid and all the other working conditions basically. Until workers are provided with a means of self-enforcement through collective organization such as FLOC is providing, there have been historically and will continue to be problems in my opinion.

EW: How has the increased growth rate of Latino immigrants to this area, how has it impacted this issue? So has-- have you seen more immigration to this area, more workers coming in and what impact has that had on the union or on the conditions of the workers?

RW: When I first came to North Carolina in 1982, I would say by and large the work force was African American and coming from Florida in terms of the migrant worker-- work force. There were some isolated pockets of workers in some of the counties, some counties, Forsyth and Rockingham and a couple of those counties up in that area, Wilkes County. And then there was just starting to be some appearance of Latino workers in Henderson County. And all those workers that were starting to appear, well, I wouldn't say all but most of them, were undocumented. There were some workers that were working for a time around Forsyth and Rockingham counties that were migrating from Texas who were citizen workers or lawful permanent residents but those workers got pretty much squeezed out by workers who were willing to work for substandard conditions who were undocumented. Since going forward from 1982 or 83 to 89 was a gradual procession of workers, African American workers getting replaced by Latino workers across the state and starting about 1989 or so, I'd say that pretty much 80 percent, more than that, were replaced by Latino workers and probably 80 percent if not more than that were undocumented. Then starting in '89 there was also a concurrent or con-- concurrent yeah, effort to bring in workers on this H2A visa basically and that program developed gradually, was started as just a few hundred workers in 1989 to the point in 1999 , 2000 there was 10,000 workers coming in on H2A visas. And that program was kind of leveled off a little bit so it's maybe 7 or 8,000 now for reasons of the costs of bringing in workers on the H2A program, which is one of the things we're trying to address with the supply chain organizing with Reynolds. But the overwhelming majority of workers since 1989 have been undocumented Latino workers and with the immigration law enforcement the opportunity and the will for those workers to and the ability of those workers to do anything to secure their legal rights, which are technically the same as any other worker under federal and state labor laws, is pretty much non-existent so they pretty much have to take whatever is given. That's their, pretty much their station the way that the legal, well I would say the employment, circumstances exist in North Carolina. So, it's not a good situation basically. And I think that one of the reasons that there was a development in terms of this worker population and ethnic background of the workers is that the North American Free Trade Agreement, otherwise known as NAFTA, basically shortly after we passed the Immigration Reform Control Act in 1986, NAFTA was agreed to and NAFTA had an impoverishing effect on a lot of rural areas in Mexico so that people who used to be able to engage in subsistence farming couldn't even compete with the price of subsidized grain in the United States was allowed to import into Mexico basically and the United States growers so that all the people that were growing grain on the ejidos in Mexico or not all but a large number of them and marketing it a little bit to make do, basically, no longer could make do because whatever grain they were trying to market was being marketed at a price that was higher than the cost of the grain coming from the United States.

[Someone comes into the office]

EW: What were we talking about? Well also, you just got back from Mexico recently. Could you tell me what you were doing there and yeah, just what you were doing there and what you learned?

RW: [pause] I was down there for a union meeting and training of members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Monterrey, Mexico. We met for two and half days and basically most of the time was taken up by discussions on and training of union members with respect to the new collective bargaining agreement that we've agreed to this year, how to exercise rights on the bid system, how to exercise rights on the grievance system, where the H2A program is going and why and where it had been historically and just generally issues that affect the workers that we represent basically and we had a pretty good turnout, about 80 workers that are strong members in the union and we had talked also about individual problems that some of them had basically but by and large it was a good development of people's knowledge basically about what they could do and were doing and what we were doing.

EW: So why did you decide to go to Monterrey over another place in Mexico?

RW: Monterrey is the place where the United States Consulate processes most of the H2A visas. We have an office in Monterrey and we're-- we have a staffed office in Monterrey to assist the workers when they're getting their visas and if they encounter problems getting their visas basically so, a lot of workers know how to get there and it's also the place to get to if you want to work H2A.

EW: Have you been to other places in Mexico working with FLOC?

RW: I have personally not but the staff has and we have staff-- we have US staff both traveled in other places in Mexico. Actually, I have, I take that back. I've been to Mexico City in connection with the murder of one of our staff. The investigation is still under-- ongoing. We had a staff member murdered in the Monterrey office on April 9th 2009, Santiago Cruz and so I was involved in some of the efforts to-- the Inter-American something, I don't know all the official deal basically but it was the inter-American Commission on Human Rights that assisted us in filing a complaint and we had had and have a bunch of lawyers helping us pursue that, I think it's the Mexican government made some required changes in the way they deal with things in Monterrey and those discussions and efforts are still ongoing and we've been assisted by a congressperson in Ohio who's actually traveled to Monterrey to assist us in our efforts to enforce, to get the Mexican government to investigate and enforce the law in respect to his murder but outside of that, I have not travelled anywhere for the union in Mexico. Well, I should say, in some ways I have traveled also to the state of Guerrero in connection with a family that the union was assisting who died of heat stroke in Halifax County here in North Carolina so we were able to get some compensation for his family finally so we did, we went down there and saw them and made sure there was a system set up so that the money didn't get frittered away with things that were not in the best interest of the children. So the president of the union and I went down to set that system up, which we did a couple years back but for the most part my business has been concentrated in Monterrey and I pretty much go there once a year.

EW: And how has going to Mexico, to Monterrey especially, changed your perspective on your work here? Does it help when you're talking to the workers that you've been to Monterrey, does it help to talk to them about Mexico, does it change anything about your work?

RW: Well, I mean, as doing anything, if you're on site where some part of the activity that you're purporting to address actually occurs it gives you some different perspective about what workers face when they're dealing with the H2A system, getting a visa and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I've been to the hospitals where they stay when they're attempting to get processed and I've been to the consulate so, you know, I have some idea of what they have to go through. Obviously, I don't have personal experience actually going through it so my perspective is always second hand but so, closer second hand obviously now that I've been there a number of times basically and also basically being with workers and talking about their problems in Monterrey is a lot different than talking to them over the telephone in North Carolina.

EW: Definitely. What is-- How long is the wait process to get an H2A? How long do they usually wait in Monterrey?

RW: Well, it varies on the efficiency of the consulate and the efficiency of the recruiters basically but usually it's a couple of days if not longer but it's usually a couple of days. If they're lucky, maybe just a night. But that's the ideal system but the problem now is that there's a, kind of a bottleneck effect with a lot of the workers wanting to come through and not enough embassy staff to deal with the workers that need to be processed basically so, there's that delay kind of inherent in the system.

EW: So do you think that there should be-- that the process in the United States needs to be changed so that there are more H2A opportunities available in the United States or-- Does that have an impact on the efficiency of the process in Mexico?

RW: What has the most-- largest effect on the efficiency of the process in Mexico is the number of staff the embassy has to process the visa. I mean, you've got literally thousands of workers wanting to come through and, you know, a handful of embassy staff to process those requests and since 9/11 there's been a much more thorough-- I wouldn't say necessarily thorough but exhaustive, interview process and you have to do everyone one by one basically whereas it was a little bit easier or not so formal and not so individually mandated before September 11th but for security reasons that everybody in this country is dealing with after September 11th, nobody gets through with an H2A visa anymore in Monterrey or in any consulate in Mexico without individual processing which multiplies the amount of time that's needed to get through all those workers which means you got to have more staff which hasn't necessarily occurred in many consulates.

EW: Can you tell me a little bit about what you know, more about the undocumented worker situation here? So, do some employers choose to not go through the H2A process and just hire undocumented workers? And what that it is like, why some farmers choose to do that.

RW: Well, I mean I represented recently a worker who has worked in Wayne County who was undocumented and he worked there until 2009, 2010 the whole seasons basically and minimum wage at that time was seven dollars and twenty five cents an hour. The employer the worker and every member of the crew seven dollars an hour on the books. And had them in an unpermitted labor camp, bad conditions basically. And in that same county, there were workers that were getting paid I think a little bit over nine dollars an hour under the-- mandated under the H2A program with permanent housing that was up to standard. So if you can-- If you're an employer and you can get away with paying seven dollars an hour and have a dump for housing that doesn't cost any money to put together as opposed to paying over nine dollars an hour and the cost of housing that you have to comply with and you're not too scrupulous about what you're doing, you can make a lot more money paying seven dollars an hour. That's basically the economic impulse for that situation and it recurs in North Carolina across, from one side of the state to the other basically in terms of the undocumented worker population.

EW: And how does the relationship with agribusinesses and corporations affect the relationship between the farmer and the worker?

RW: Well, most, at least I can speak pretty much of the tobacco but it's not that much different for a lot of the crops. It used to be, back when I first started in North Carolina that tobacco was sold at auction. There were basically auction houses so that when the grower produced his or her tobacco, he had an arrangement with an independent auctioneer and tobacco was sold in big warehouses basically to tobacco companies so that buyers would come in and purchase tobacco. That system has is disappeared completely. Now all tobacco that is grown in North Carolina and any other state that I'm aware of are grown on supply contracts where tobacco companies mandate what kind of tobacco is going to be grown, with what kind of seeds and such and so forth using whatever kind of inputs that they want, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. And they have the right under these contracts to specify those things. They also have the right to require, and do require supposedly, compliance with all employment and labor laws. Well, I wouldn't say they do require but they have a right to require all employment and labor laws. So, basically what happens is the grower produces a certain amount of tobacco that's all spoken for and he has to sell or she to sell it at a stipulated price that's decided before the season starts to a particular tobacco company and they are-- the tobacco company only agrees, they don't agree to purchase the whole crop, they just agree to purchase whatever they think is necessary basically so tobacco growers are pretty much between a rock and a hard place because he has to or she has to sell her crop at a stipulated price which is basically non-negotiable at the start of the season and then they-- the amount of what they're selling is dictated by tobacco companies without any real ability on the part of the grower how much their crop is going to be purchased and how much is going down the toilet. So, they're at risk throughout the situation, throughout the season basically and depending upon, you know, then the weather and all that kind of stuff and then depending upon how the market proceeds and what's happening with international tobacco markets and all the things the grower has no control over, they sell their crop at a preordained price and hopefully they make some money and in the meantime, they've got to pay their workers. So, that's why we talk about supply chain organizing. The people that really need to make the changes are the people that are running those supply contracts.

EW: Can you tell me what you know about the day labor population in Pittsboro or in Chapel Hill or Carrboro or the state in general and kind of what are the issues in that situation as well?

RW: I don't do that much work in connection with the day labor population primarily because it's even more difficult to enforce day labor worker's rights legally than it is among migrant workers and migrant workers are tough enough, basically. The problem with day laborers in my experience is number one, they're transient, so that they're difficult to keep up with and sometimes they're difficult to stay in touch with you, so you have no client from one day to the next. They have-- but more importantly, the people that are employing them are undercapitalized or non-capitalized basically, so if there is a non-payment of wages, or wage theft is the term that's used, there's basically no recourse from a civil side basically because those entities or persons have no money to pay. So under North Carolina, there are no procedures under which you can collect or garnish or force execution in any kind of way that will give you kind of meaningful recourse for those kinds of undercapitalized or non-capitalized operations basically. So, you're talking about a guy who comes down to the railroad tracks, say in Raleigh which is where a lot of people are meeting, and have a couple of guys jump in the back of his pickup truck and off they go for a couple of days work in some landscaping or whatever and the guy at the end of the week pays them nothing or at the end of the day pays them nothing, then some hope that they will get some money the next day from the same guy and then it turns out they don't pay them anything, number one sometimes they don't even know the guy's name or they know him only as Jim in the blue pickup truck. So, you start with that problem and then number two, if they do manage to get the guy's full name, Jim in the blue pickup truck has no assets basically that you can get to because his house is owned with his wife and you can't get to that under North Carolina law in terms of an asset that you can execute against and the pickup truck is probably worth a total of a hundred bucks or not much more probably also, if he's making payments on it, you can't take that to satisfy a wage theft. So basically there's nothing you can do legally, from a civil side, to say to-- to collect those wages. The only real remedy is in some jurisdictions they've started to enact what they call wage theft statutes to make it a criminal offense to engage in that kind of activity and if there were such a statute in North Carolina, I believe there are in one or two jurisdictions, then you could file a complaint in that circumstance and, as condition of prosecution, require the employer to make good on the wages, just as you would require somebody who had obtained property by false pretenses, which is a felony in North Carolina, to provide restitution for the amount of money or property that they have wrongfully secured. And that's really not much different than basically what you're talking about. It's wrongfully obtaining people's labor with the, in some cases with the knowledge ahead of time that they're not going to pay them and certain not paying them. So that's basically the idea behind the wage theft statute and it's a good idea basically for day laborers because for the most part, unless they-- there is some organization among the day laborers, which in some jurisdictions and cities there is, there's a national day laborers organizing committee basically. But short of that, and short of some kind of requirement that day laborer employers are posting some kind of security or posting some kind of bond so that people can get their money, if they're not paid, as I see it, and I'm not an expert in this area by any stretch of the imagination, the only to vindicate people's rates is the day labor-- excuse me, the wage theft statutes.

EW: Okay, well, this-- that's all the questions that I have for today so thank you so much for talking to me.

RW: Okay, great.

EW: Thank you.