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Farm workers, civil rights groups file federal lawsuit over NC Farm Act

Farm workers and civil rights groups announced a federal lawsuit outside the legislature Wednesday over a recently passed law that inhibits farm workers from unionizing. (Photo by Carol Brooke)

North Carolina farm workers and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit this week challenging a state law that inhibits the ability of farm workers to organize and make collective bargaining agreements with employers.

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

The suit argues that the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017, Senate Bill 617, impedes farm workers’ First Amendment right to participate in unions, and asserts that the law is discriminatory, as more than 90 percent of the state’s agricultural workers are Latino.

The groups are asking the court to block implementation of the law as litigation proceeds. They gathered Wednesday outside the legislature for a press conference about the matter.

“Politicians that are also growers shouldn’t pass self-serving laws simply because they don’t want their workers to unionize,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. “With the continuation of Jim Crow-era laws that aim to stop a now almost entirely Latino workforce from organizing, this is an affront to freedom of association and smacks of racism. Companies like Reynolds American should be embarrassed that growers in their supply chains are attacking the very farm workers who make their companies’ wealth.”

More than 100,000 farmworkers provide labor to North Carolina farms, helping to generate more than $12 billion for the state economy, according to the ACLU. The vast majority are Latinos and work seasonally, many under temporary visas.

SB617 bars farm worker 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.

(Photo by Carol Brooke)

Because North Carolina is a so-called “right-to-work” state, dues deductions can only occur when individual workers choose to have dues deducted, according to the ACLU. 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 prohibits 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 to acknowledge their responsibility for the conditions workers face in their supply chains. The new law introduces major obstacles to FLOC’s ability to renew its existing agreements and pursue more in the future.

(Photo by Carol Brooke)

“Farmworkers are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in the state,” said Clermont Ripley, a staff attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. NC Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch. “They arguably need a union more than anyone else. In passing the Farm Act, our legislature — staunchly opposed to organized labor and unquestioningly deferential to the interests of big business — has further weakened the ability of farmworkers to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers.”

The law’s primary sponsor was Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson), who owns Jackson Farming Company and was recently sued for wage theft by Latino farm workers who were helped by FLOC.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin, Wayne), an owner of Jimmy Dixon farm in Duplin County, was the only legislator to speak in favor of the anti-worker provisions in the bill on the House floor. He said the law was necessary because “there seems to be a growing wave of folks that are interested in farm labor.”

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