Note to Labor Unions and UAW: Auto Workers Don't Need You, but Farm Workers Do

This story has been expanded to include detail on the UAW's involvement with GM.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (TheStreet) -- For the labor movement, the United Auto Workers' failure to organize Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a shame, a loss to be mourned.

But for the workers, who already enjoy many of the benefits that the UAW has worked for for over the past 80 years, it's not really so bad at all. The UAW long ago succeeded in making auto manufacturing a profession that offers its workers a middle-class lifestyle. So why pay union dues? To show your sense of history?

Organized labor has so much more to do, as our country slips back into what it was when the UAW got started. The gap between rich and poor is no narrower; it may be wider. Tennessee Republican politicians and right-wing interest groups, who view the UAW as a wing of the Democratic party, could make a case that the Tennessee auto worker does not really need the union. No one can make the case that farmworkers don't.

North Carolina, like most states, has farmworkers -- includings tobacco workers -- who make minimum wage or less, suffer a sub-standard lifestyle and often live in labor camps where they can't even reside year round because their work is seasonal. Who is helping them?

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is trying. It's enjoyed some small successes. The Toledo, Ohio-based union represents 7,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, a small fraction of the total, and each day it confronts impossible odds.

Undocumented farm workers pick America's crops, but they are not covered by America's labor laws. The Railway Labor Act and the National Labor Relations Act do not apply to them. "We've never really had any protections, so we just keep doing work on the ground," said Justin Flores, FLOC vice president.

North Carolina has an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 farmworkers. A handful, about 7,000, are temporary agricultural workers covered by H-2A visas and also represented by FLOC. They have a federal minimum wage, set this year at $9.87. They are the lucky few: most farmworkers make far less. 

"I've talked to a lot of farmworkers, but I have never met a non H-2A worker who makes more than $7.25 an hour, and some folks make less," Flores said.

"Almost all of them work in labor crews," he said. "A grower hires a contractor who brings in 10 to 100 people, and takes a piece of everybody's wages. The workers live in labor camps, in awful conditions. A lot of them are new to this country and they are afraid of getting fired, so they take what they can get."

FLOC has taken small but important steps. It signed a collective bargaining agreement in 2004 that covers the H-2A workers. "We're trying to keep growing that movement," Flores said.

Some members pay dues equivalent to 2.5% of their paycheck, but because North Carolina is a right-to-work state workers can enjoy union benefits without paying union dues.

FLOC also has a campaign to improve conditions for tobacco workers employed by contractors who sell to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in Winston-Salem. In 2011, the company pledged to support a tobacco industry council that included farmworkers, and to use an independent third party to monitor tobacco field conditions. in 2012, FLOC and Reynolds began to meet directly.

This summer, FLOC will launch a campaign to organize 5,000 N.C. tobacco workers. "Everybody should have a union to push their interests," Flores said. "We need to focus on the unorganized and farmworkers and low-wage workers who are exploited in a lot of industries."

FLOC does get some support from organized labor. It is part of the AFL-CIO. UAW President Bob King and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts have both visited labor camps and lent support. The North Carolina AFL-CIO, church groups and student groups are among its key supporters.

A problem is that the federal government appears to have lost interest in protecting the neediest workers. And many unions have tired of butting their heads against the wall, given the limited support in the law and the well-funded anti-union cottage industry that was so evident in Chattanooga but generally functions a bit more quietly throughout the South.

In North Carolina, the situation is even worse. Last year, the state's Tea Party-dominated legislature decided that it needed to protect residents from FLOC's efforts to help farmworkers. A section of an enhanced 2013 right-to-work law declares it illegal to condition the purchase of agricultural products "upon an agricultural producer's status as a union or nonunion employer" or upon "entry into or refusal to enter into an agreement with a labor union or labor organization,"

In Flores' words, the law says buyers "can't incent a grower (to) respect labor laws."  The words "piling on" come to mind.

In the 1930s, when companies oppressed workers, labor unions stepped in and waged battles so fierce that people were sometimes killed. It took a 1936 sit-down strike to organize GM (GM) and violent confrontation to organize Ford (F). Now both are labor friendly companies and the GM bankruptcy represented a joint effort by the company, the union and the Obama Administration.

In fact, the GM bankrupty was perhaps the UAW's most important achievement in recent years. It was a battle won in a courtroom, not on the floor of an auto plant. Looking at its history, the UAW did its job far too well.
Today, the organizing battles are usually lost, before they even begin, to a dysfunctional Congress and gerrymandered legislatures and, it must be said, to a labor movement that generally seems to be fighting just to protect what it has.

Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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