Politics & Government

Court temporarily blocks anti-union law in North Carolina, but fight isn’t over for farm workers

A seasonal farm worker dumps a bucket of freshly picked cucumbers into a bin at Jeremy Mitchell’s farm on the Wake/Franklin County line June 25, 2015.
A seasonal farm worker dumps a bucket of freshly picked cucumbers into a bin at Jeremy Mitchell’s farm on the Wake/Franklin County line June 25, 2015. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Agriculture is one of the biggest, most powerful industries in North Carolina. But its corporate and political backers just lost the first round of a legal battle with the industry’s lowest-paid workers.

Last year the N.C. General Assembly passed a law that, in part, made it illegal for farms and unions to negotiate settlements involving union contracts. It also made it illegal for farm workers to directly transfer parts of their paycheck to the union as dues.

On Thursday, however, a federal judge blocked the law from taking effect — at least temporarily — as the lawsuit continues winding its way through the court system. It’s a temporary reprieve for the workers and a loss for the N.C. Farm Bureau, which The News & Observer reported was a major supporter of the law.

In North Carolina there is just one union for farm workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. It and some of its members sued to overturn the law, as did the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NC Justice Center. FLOC said more than 90 percent of farm workers in North Carolina are Hispanic, and they need a union to band together and fight for better treatment.

“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,” union president Baldemar Velasquez said in a press release Thursday.

North Carolina is a right-to-work state, which doesn’t mean that unions are illegal but does mean that it’s more difficult for unions to operate than in other states, even with no additional restrictions.

For agriculture, the additional restrictions in the 2017 law meant that farms couldn’t directly help workers pay their union dues, even if both the farmer and the worker wanted to. It also meant that if a farm was accused of mistreating its workers and the owners wanted to avoid a lawsuit by settling with the union to enter into a union contract, they also wouldn’t be able to do that.

In 2017, Union County Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon, who is a farmer himself, added the anti-union language to that year’s wider-ranging Farm Bill. But at the time Dixon told The N&O the intent was not to target FLOC specifically, but rather to help individual farmers who felt pressured by the union.

Federal district court judge Loretta Biggs, however, ruled Thursday that the law likely violates the constitutional rights of farm workers, and so it should be blocked from going into effect while the lawsuit is underway. So for both sides, the fight is not yet over. But that didn’t stop allies of the farm workers from celebrating Thursday’s win.

“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,” Brian Hauss, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said Thursday in a press release.

Legislative leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon. Neither did the head lawyer for the Farm Bureau, Julian Philpott.

A spokeswoman for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, whose office is defending the state in the lawsuit, said the office is reviewing the decision and didn’t comment further.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran