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Federal court blocks North Carolina law that stripped rights from farmworkers

A federal court this week blocked a North Carolina law that prevented farmworkers from organizing and making collective bargaining agreements with employers, as a legal challenge against the law proceeds.

The court found that the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 likely violates farmworkers’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection.

The ruling on Thursday followed a federal lawsuit that the SPLC and other civil rights groups filed in November of last year, asserting that the law impedes farmworkers’ First Amendment right to participate in unions, and that the law is discriminatory, as more than 90 percent of the state’s agricultural workers are Latino.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that the government cannot impose special burdens on expressive associations such as unions.

“Today was a victory for North Carolina’s farmworkers and their right to organize and bargain for fair working conditions as guaranteed in the Constitution,” Mary Bauer, deputy legal director at the SPLC, said on Thursday. “Farmworkers provide essential labor to North Carolina’s economy, and they deserve equal protection under the law. As the case moves forward, we will continue to fight to protect their right to organize for humane working conditions and fair compensation.”

The lawsuit was broughton behalf of the only farmworkers’ union in the state — the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) — and two individual farmworkers.

“We're happy that the federal court saw clearly that this racist law was an effort to stop farmworkers from having the resources to fund their own institution and fight for a more fair workplace,” FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez said. 

The law barred farmworker unions from entering into agreements with employers to have union dues transferred from paychecks — even if the union members want it, and even if the employer agrees to the arrangement.

Because North Carolina is a so-called “right-to-work” state, dues deductions can only occur when individual workers choose to have dues deducted. Many of FLOC’s members are guest-workers who lack ready access to U.S. bank accounts, credit cards and other means of making regular union dues payments, and they therefore rely on dues transfer arrangements to pay their union dues.

If those arrangements become invalid, the union will be required to divert most of its limited resources to collecting dues individually from each worker.

The law also prohibited agricultural producers from signing any agreement with a union relating to a lawsuit, such as a settlement in which an employer agrees to recognize a union, or a collective bargaining agreement that includes a promise not to sue.

FLOC has used such voluntary agreements with employers to secure critical improvements in working conditions at farms, such as higher wages and an end to exploitative recruitment fees and blacklisting.

In addition, FLOC has successfully challenged tobacco giants, such as Reynolds American, Inc., to acknowledge their responsibility for the conditions workers face in their supply chains. The law introduced major obstacles to FLOC’s ability to renew its existing agreements and pursue more in the future.

The court order blocking the law adopted a ruling last month from a magistrate judge.

In addition to the SPLC, the lawsuit against the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the North Carolina Justice Center, and the Law Offices of Robert J. Willis.

Photo credit: Jeremy M. Lange