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Federal court strikes down NC law that barred farmworkers from seeking union representation via lawsuit settlements

A federal district court judge on Wednesday entered a permanent injunction against a provision from the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 that invalidated lawsuit settlements in which parties agree to recognize union representation of farmworkers as part of the agreement. The challenged provision was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in July of 2017 as part of an omnibus 24-page bill.

Farmworkers and civil rights groups announced a federal lawsuit outside the legislature in 2017. (Photo by Carol Brooke)

Advocacy groups filed suit challenging the anti-union provision in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in November of 2017 on behalf of two farmworkers and the state’s only farmworker union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

[Note: NC Justice Center, the parent organization of Policy Watch, was among the organizations and law firms representing the plaintiffs in the suit.]

Plaintiffs claimed that FLOC had been deprived by the law of at least one opportunity to “assist members who have potential employment claims to negotiate with their employer for a prefiling settlement of such claims.”

In the complaint, counsel for the plaintiffs argued that the ban on making union representation a part of settlements strips farmworkers from securing settlement terms in their best interest, a right enjoyed by other private sector employees.

In reviewing and approving the decision of the Magistrate Judge to which the case was initially assigned, U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs previously held that the challenged provision violates the First Amendment and first-amendment-related protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. On Wednesday, she permanently enjoined the state from seeking to enforce it.

The plaintiffs argued that the law not only infringed on workers’ First Amendment rights to form and participate in in unions, but it also violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as most of the state’s farm workers are Latino.

“We continue to believe this law was crafted to block farmworkers from fighting for these rights with the help of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee negotiating on their behalf,” said Julia Solórzano, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project representing the plaintiffs, in a press release. “These efforts to undermine the rights of these workers must not stand, and we will fight until they are defeated.”

The suit also challenged another portion of the law that prohibits agricultural producers from entering voluntary enforceable agreements to deduct union dues from farmworkers’ paychecks.

Despite striking down the settlement provision as unconstitutional, Judge Biggs, allowed the dues checkoff ban to remain in place.

As Policy Watch previously reported, many farmworkers in North Carolina are present in the state on a temporary visa for guest workers and don’t have credit cards or access to U.S. bank accounts, hence few other means to pay for union dues other than relying on dues transfer arrangements.

Plaintiffs are appealing the portion of the decision that upheld the dues checkoff provision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

“We are confident that the Fourth Circuit will determine that farmworkers are entitled to the same rights as other North Carolina workers to freely choose for themselves whether to have union dues deducted from their paychecks,”  legal director for the ACLU of N.C. Kristi Graunke said in the press release.

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