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

Tickers in this article: GM
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.