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Federal court delivers victory for NC farmworkers

A federal court blocked a North Carolina law Thursday that guts the ability of farmworkers to organize and make 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 likely violates farmworkers’ Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection, according to a news release from the ACLU of North Carolina.

The federal lawsuit was brought on behalf of the only farmworkers’ union in the state — the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)– and two individual farmworkers. It was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the ACLU, the North Carolina Justice Center, and the Law Offices of Robert J. Willis. The N.C. Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

“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,” said Brian Hauss, a staff attorney at the ACLU. “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 organize and advocate for better working conditions.”

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. Ninety percent of the state’s farmworkers are Latinos and work seasonally, many under temporary visas.

The Farm Act bars 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.

The Thursday court ruling is a victory for 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,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez.

Clermont Ripley, staff attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, said the judge’s decision to enjoin the discriminatory Farm Act 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,” she added.

Mary Bauer,  deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, echoed those sentiments and said farmworkers and their right to organize and bargain for fair working conditions are guaranteed in the Constitution.

“Farmworkers provide essential labor to North Carolina’s economy, and they deserve equal protection under the law,” she said. “As the case moves forward, we will continue to fight to protect their right to organize for humane working conditions and fair compensation.”

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