North Carolina farmworkers and the state’s only union representing them contend Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper violated their free speech rights earlier this year when he signed the Farm Act of 2017.
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee and two seasonal farmworkers from Mexico who have the proper paperwork to work in North Carolina filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday challenging the law.
State Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican who owns Jackson Farming Company and was recently sued for wage theft by Latino farmworkers helped by FLOC, was the primary sponsor of the law. The farmers and FLOC contend that measures added in the process of approving the law by state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, farmer and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, were designed to render the farmworkers’ union essentially ineffective.
The law prevents farms from transferring workers’ dues directly to unions or labor organizations. It also prohibits farmers from settling workers’ lawsuits by agreeing to union contracts.
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Dixon said at the time the law was under consideration that the N.C. Farm Bureau and other farm organizations requested the limits on unions. Farmers are under undue pressure to collect union dues and sign union contracts, Dixon said. “That’s something that I’m hearing,” he said.
FLOC vice president Justin Flores told a reporter at The News & Observer the restrictions would make it difficult to collect dues from its members who work across the state. “If we had to stop by every single week to pick up dues, we wouldn’t do anything but collect dues,” Flores said.
100,000 farmworkers in NC
FLOC, founded in 1967 to ensure that farmworkers have a voice in decisions that affect them in the workplace and in their communities, has about 10,000 members in North Carolina.
Victor Toledo Vences, a FLOC member since 2005 who has helped farm vegetables and tobacco through the federal guestworker program, is upset that his employers no longer will be able to deduct union dues from his wages and transfer them directly to the union. So is Valentin Alvarado Hernandez, a FLOC member since 2016 who is from Mexico, works on vegetable or tobacco farms several months a year through the guestworker program. He was in Stokes County this year.
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 Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the North Carolina Justice Center and Pittsboro lawyer Robert J. Willis, the attorneys representing FLOC and the farmers. The vast majority are Latinos and work seasonally, they added.
“Politicians that are also growers shouldn’t pass self-serving laws simply because they don’t want their workers to unionize,” FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina. “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 farmworkers who make their companies’ wealth.”
‘Does not block a union from organizing’
Larry Wooten, president of North Carolina Farm Bureau, said he is “confident” the 2017 Farm Act is constitutional.
“The law does not block a union from organizing, engaging in collective bargaining activities, or collecting dues from its members,” Wooten said in a statement. “It merely states that farmers shouldn’t be forced to unionize their farms under the threat of lawsuits and they shouldn’t be required to serve as a treasurer for unions.
Wooten said the majority of North Carolina farms are small, family businesses.
“This law reduces an unnecessary administrative burden on farmers,” Wooten said. “It allows them to get back to what they do best – growing our nation’s food and fiber.”
In addition to contending that the law violates the First Amendment, the challengers also argue that equal protection rights are being violated.
“Farmworkers provide indispensable labor to North Carolina’s economy,” said Kristi Graunke, senior supervising attorney at the SPLC. “In exchange for their sacrifices and hard work, the legislature has repaid them with suppression of their constitutional rights. They deserve fair compensation, humane working conditions, and the ability to remedy grievances through collective bargaining. This law swings open the door for worker abuse on every farm across the state.”