US Federal Court blocks law stripping farm workers of their rights

By agency reporter
September 23, 2018

A federal court has blocked a North Carolina law that prevents farmworkers from organising and making collective bargaining agreements with their employers from going into effect as a legal challenge proceeds. The court found that the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 is likely to violate farmworkers’ Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. Ninety per cent of the state’s farmworkers are Latino. 

The federal lawsuit was brought on behalf of the only farmworkers’ union in the state – the Farm Labor Organising Committee (FLOC)  and two individual farmworkers. It was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union, the North Carolina Justice Center, and the Law Offices of Robert J. Willis. 

Brian Hauss, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said, “North Carolina’s law is clearly designed to make it harder, if not impossible, for the state’s only farmworkers union to advocate for sorely needed protections against exploitation and bad working conditions. We’re glad the court has blocked the legislature’s attempt to violate farmworkers’ constitutional and civil rights, and we’ll keep fighting for the ability of those workers to organise and advocate for better working conditions.”

Clermont Ripley, staff attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, said, “Judge Biggs’ decision to enjoin this discriminatory law means that FLOC can get back to work focusing on the needs of its members. This is more critical than ever right now as farmworkers throughout eastern North Carolina are struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Florence.”

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez said, “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.”

Mary Bauer, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “Today was a victory for North Carolina’s farmworkers and their right to organise and bargain for fair working conditions as guaranteed in the Constitution. 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 law bars farmworker unions from entering into agreements with employers to have union dues transferred from paycheques – 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 so choose. Many of FLOC’s members are guest-workers who lack ready access to US 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 prohibits agricultural producers from signing any agreement with a union relating to a lawsuit, such as a settlement in which an employer agrees to recognise a union, or a collective bargaining agreement which 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 introduces major obstacles to FLOC’s ability to renew its existing agreements and pursue more in the future.

* Read the court ruling here

* American Civil Liberties Union https://www.aclu.org/

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