Taxpayers fund activists’ efforts to unionize North Carolina


ORGANIZE THEM: Student Action with Farmworkers want to train people to organize farm workers in North Carolina, and taxpayers are paying for some of that activity.

By Paul Chesser | Special to

Union activists postponed a forum at Duke University last week due to the unusual snowfall in central North Carolina, but recent activities and statements show a significant push is on to organize workers — at least partially using taxpayer dollars — in the country’s least unionized state.

The delayed event was to be co-sponsored by Student Action with Farmworkers, which works with agricultural laborers, college students and labor activists to “create a more just agricultural system.” While SAF receives the majority of its support from like-minded foundations and donors, nearly 10 percent of its recent funding has come from taxpayers.

According to its website and last two available federal tax returns, the group collected about $117,000 of its $1.2 million in revenue during the past two years ― September 2010 through August 2012 ― from government grants and awards.

SAF also coordinates activities with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Among other things, the group and the state agency have co-planned an annual “Farmworker Institute Summit and Networking Event” where DHHS staffers recruit volunteers and sponsors for the event, while SAF collects registration fees from participants.

At the same time SAF collaborates with government agencies; it also is using its partial taxpayer support to engage in political activism against North Carolina lawmakers.

For example, the group is recruiting from its alumni and Facebook friends to participate in a “Moral Monday” march ― the protests by liberal activists that proliferated last year against the new Republican-led governorship and Legislature ― this Saturday.

SAF also runs a “Student Organizing School” that trains North Carolina students to organize and “become leaders in the farmworker movement.” Based at Duke, SAF recruits students from other universities to propagate the recognizable left-labor themes of social justice and economic justice ― what some conservatives call the redistribution of wealth.

Among those celebrated by SAF are the late socialist farm labor activist Cesar Chavez and one of his collaborators, Dolores Huerta. Together, they founded the United Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers labor union.

Melinda Wiggins, SAF’s executive director since 1996, was recognized by the White House as one of 10 “Champions of Change” who have carried out Chavez’s legacy because they exemplified his core values. Her biography notes she studied feminist and liberation theology ― critics characterize it as “Christian Marxism” ― at Duke in pursuit of her master’s in theological studies.

“Although she was familiar with some of the struggles that people at the margins of society face,” the bio says of Wiggins, “she strives to transcend the deep racial prejudices of her community by becoming a white ally to migrant farmworkers, and finding ways for young people to work with farmworkers for mutual empowerment and joint learning.”

You’d expect a group like SAF that has been around so long would have a solid foundation of consistent, like-minded contributors. And it does, including the left-wing North Carolina powerhouse donor Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which annually gives upwards of $10 million to an array of liberal groups. In 2011, according to public records, the foundation awarded SAF a $90,000 grant.

While SAF is serving as a local vehicle for labor activism, expect bigger activities in North Carolina from national groups. In September, the national convention of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles adopted a resolution to make the development of “a Southern organizing strategy” a top priority, which would “include a long-term commitment to organize the South.” North Carolina, with its strong presence of immigrants and farmworkers, is an early target.

“People are hungry for a movement that offers the hope that things can be different — and they can be,” wrote MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina state AFL-CIO, in an essay titled “Organize the South or Die.”

“If unions grow this movement by investing in southern states, we can change the South and by doing so, we can change the nation,” she wrote.

McMillan called attention to last year’s “Moral Monday” demonstrations in Raleigh and across the state as evidence of the “hunger” for union expansion, among other liberal causes advocated during the protests.

Also beefing up its Tar Heel presence is the agriculture-focused labor National Farm Worker’s Ministry, a “faith-based organization that supports farm workers as they organize for justice and empowerment.” In September, the ministry said it would move its headquarters from St. Louis to Raleigh.

The snowed-out event at Duke, “Organizing the South: How a Southern Workers’ Movement Can Change the Nation,” has been rescheduled for Feb. 17.

Paul Chesser is a correspondent for

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