Agribusiness Update

Carolina farmers must constantly deal with changing weather and markets. Add one more challenge: labor unions. Recently, labor unions have actively targeted certain agribusinesses in the Carolinas.

Even though unions generally do not have the legal right to unionize farm workers, unions have tried to leverage other laws to unionize farm workers in the Carolinas. The federal law governing most employer-union issues, the National Labor Relations Act, generally does not cover agricultural laborers, so they do not have the federal right to unionize. Some states have laws granting farm workers a statutory right to unionize, but North Carolina and South Carolina do not. To the contrary, there are strong Right to Work laws in both Carolinas. See, e.g., N.C.G.S. §95-78 et seq.; S.C. Code Ann. 41-7-10 et seq. Even in the Carolinas, though, a farmer and a union could voluntarily agree, by contract, to unionization as long as the Right to Work laws or other related statutes are not violated. Unions are using various tactics to pressure farmers to agree to unionization.

Unions in the Carolinas are using negative publicity and lawsuits to pressure supply chains and growers. For example, a union coordinated protests at convenience stores which sold tobacco products manufactured by companies who refused to pressure their suppliers, specifically tobacco farmers, to welcome unionization. Earlier this year, the same union used negative publicity and public petitions to target a state senator, claiming that his family farm did not treat farm workers fairly. The union also supported a federal lawsuit against the farm and its owners alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the North Carolina Wage Hour Act, and other laws. The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of money in alleged compensation, damages, backpay, penalties, and attorney fees and costs. That was one of several similar lawsuits filed against other farmers in North Carolina.

Based on this trend, agribusinesses should review their legal compliance efforts regarding such laws as:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act—governs overtime and minimum wage, covering some ancillary farm operations such as packing houses for multiple farmers;
  • State wage payment statutes – penalize employers for not properly notifying and paying employees;
  • Migrant Worker laws – regulate such things as pay and housing for migrant workers;
  • Immigration laws – govern legal entry of foreign workers into the United States

There is no legal requirement to unionize farm workers in the Carolinas. To reduce the risk of unions using negative publicity, expensive lawsuits or similar tactics to unionize farm workers, agribusinesses should audit and update their legal compliance efforts.