In June, the Florida Board of Governors added a new member to UF’s Board of Trustees: Susan Cameron (previously known as Susan Ivey), the former CEO of Reynolds American, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds and the second largest tobacco company in the United States.
The Gainesville Sun reported on July 3 that anti-smoking and public health advocates—like Dr. Scott Tomar, a professor of community dentistry and behavioral sciences at UF—are not pleased with Cameron’s new position. “It’s certainly not the model of business ethics that I think UF should be promoting,” he said.
What’s really interesting about Cameron’s past, which The Gainesville Sun only mentions briefly, is the controversy over her company’s treatment of farm workers. In 2009, two-dozen protesters, including students from UF and the University of Central Florida, rallied outside the Hilton UF Conference Center during a UF Foundation board meeting. Their goal was to bring attention to the treatment of tobacco workers in the fields of North Carolina. As reported by The Alligator:
By demonstrating in front of the board meeting’s venue, the protesters said they hoped to show Ivey that farm workers’ issues are important… Although Ivey wasn’t in attendance at the meeting, the students handed out informational fliers to the board, including UF President Bernie Machen, who told them he would make sure Ivey got a flier.
Two years earlier, more than 300 farm workers, trade unionists, religious leaders, and students marched through the streets of Winston-Salem, NC. The march was led by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to demand negotiations with R.J. Reynolds over the “oppressive conditions” suffered by North Carolina tobacco workers, which included “sub-minimum wages, corrupt crew leaders, extreme poverty, bootleg labor camps, major health risks and heat stroke deaths,” according to a statement from the FLOC. In 2007, Fight Back News reported the following:
Over the past month, CEO Susan Ivey… has refused to meet with the union or with religious leaders to discuss the issue, citing the fact that R.J. Reynolds is not the direct employer of these workers. But FLOC argues that because of the control that R.J. Reynolds has over their procurement systems, the company has the power to bring about changes involving all parties in the supply chain.
By 2010, the United Auto Workers (UAW) joined forces with the FLOC to take on JPMorgan Chase, partially due to its financial ties with Reynolds American. UAW President Bob King and several religious leaders announced their intention to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars from the bank. Why would they do such a thing? According to the AFL-CIO Now blog:
For three years, Susan Ivey… has refused to meet with workers to discuss the conditions of thousands of tobacco farm employees in North Carolina and other states who harvest the tobacco Reynolds uses to make its products. JPMorgan Chase is one of the lead banks in a consortium of lenders that provides $498 million in credit to Reynolds American.
In May 2011, Reynolds American finally agreed to meet with the FLOC after 150 workers and community supporters rallied on May 6 at the company’s shareholder meeting. The company pledged to use an independent monitor to assess working conditions at its farms and to create a council of tobacco manufacturers, growers, labor officials, agricultural scientists, farm workers, and their representatives, including the FLOC.
By then, Ivey was no longer part of the company. She had retired three months earlier, leaving a “legacy that stretches beyond the boardroom,” according to the Winston-Salem Journal. “Stories abound about Ivey’s energetic contributions to nonprofit organizations as large as United Way of Forsyth County, the Winston-Salem YWCA and Salem College, and as small as Senior Services Inc. and the Stokes County Arts Council.” The paper gushes on about her accomplishments in business and philanthropy without mentioning her lack of concern for tobacco workers. According to an article from the Institute of Southern Studies:
FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez called Reynolds “one of the most anti-worker companies in the field,” citing its subminimum wages as well as illnesses and heat-stroke deaths among tobacco pickers. They’re brought on by a relentless work pace, pesticides, and acute nicotine poisoning caused by a lack of protective clothing and training.
Ivey’s initial response to protesters—we don’t directly employ these workers, so there’s nothing we can do—was repeated in 2011 by representatives of Publix when they refused to negotiate with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), despite similar deals struck by the CIW with companies like Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Aramark, and Whole Foods (none of which directly employ farm workers).
Well, fair enough. That was all a few months ago. This is now. The Gainesville Sun reported in June that UF’s Board of Trustees had “gone through a major turnover” after Governor Rick Scott appointed Atlanta health care executive W. Michael Heekin, Naples health care executive Alan M. Levine, and Florida Power and Light senior attorney Juliet M. Roulhac. And now we have Susan Cameron, formerly Susan Ivey. We can rest assured to know that UF’s Board of Trustees is business-savvy, if nothing else.