Farm Bureau warns farmers are vulnerable


In the legal battle over religious and political speech in the workplace, farmers are in a particularly vulnerable position, according to an attorney for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Two business groups -- Associated Oregon Industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- have launched a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn a new Oregon labor law.

Senate Bill 519, passed in 2009, bars employers from holding mandatory meetings about religion and politics, including unionization campaigns.

The plaintiffs have two main grounds for challenging the new rule.

Their legal complaint alleges that Oregon's new rule violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits federal and state agencies from hindering freedom of speech.

The complaint also claims the state law is preempted by a federal statute, the National Labor Relations Act, which governs communications between employers and employees.

Plaintiffs say the NLRA protects an employer's right to hold such mandatory meetings.

Federal judges often prefer to rule on narrow grounds, which in this case would be federal preemption under NLRA, said Tim Bernasek, an attorney representing the Oregon Farm Bureau. The problem is that agricultural workers are excluded from the NLRA.

First Amendment rights are typically considered a broader issue, he said.

Before the law passed in 1935, the organized labor debate primarily centered on large companies with high numbers of employees, he said. Excluding agriculture helped simplified the discussion.

If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs based solely on federal preemption under NLRA, the Oregon law would still apply to agricultural employers, he said.

"We find ourselves in a situation where we're on the outside looking in," said Bernasek.

To reduce the chances of farmers' interests being overlooked, the bureau has filed a "friend of the court" brief urging the judge to rule in favor of the plaintiffs on the broader First Amendment issue.

-- Mateusz Perkowski

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