Provision of North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 ruled unconstitutional

GREENSBORO, N.C. (September 16, 2021) – North Carolina farmworkers and their sole union won a substantial victory yesterday when a federal court struck down part of a state law that would have stripped farmworkers and their union of their rights to bargain for voluntary union recognition in settling legal claims — rights enjoyed by every other private-sector worker in North Carolina. In the order, Judge Loretta Biggs declared that the “Settlement Provision” (a portion of Section 20.5 [a], p. 23) of the N.C Farm Act of 2017 (Farm Act) violates the First Amendment and First-Amendment-related protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The court order is available here.

“We are encouraged with this significant overturning of a state law that attacks the only Farmworker union in North Carolina,” said Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. “Farmworkers are essential workers who put food on the tables of families throughout the country. They deserve better than being bullied by politicians trying to deprive them of the same rights that all other private-sector workers have.”

Governor Roy Cooper signed the Farm Act into law in July 2017. North Carolina farmworkers sued to block the implementation of the law in November 2017. Plaintiffs in the case include the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and a farmworker, who are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU of North Carolina, the ACLU Foundation, the North Carolina Justice Center, and the Law Office of Robert J. Willis.

“This is an important victory for farmworkers across the state that will ensure they are once again able to join together to improve their working conditions,” said Julia Solórzano, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project. “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. These efforts to undermine the rights of these workers must not stand, and we will fight until they are defeated.”

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office defended the law in court, despite the fact that this law targets North Carolina’s most vulnerable workers and strips from them basic organizing rights enjoyed by every other private-sector worker in the state.  As part of today’s court order, the Attorney General is permanently prohibited from enforcing the unconstitutional portion of the law and required to assume control over and terminate any prosecutions attempted under the Settlement Provision.

“Farmworkers, like all workers, have the right to representation by a union,” said Carol Brooke, Senior Attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. “We are gratified that the court struck down the unconstitutional provision that would make it much more difficult for farmworkers in North Carolina to organize to improve their working conditions.”

Although the court declared the settlement provision to be unconstitutional, it has allowed another portion of the law challenged by farmworkers to remain in place. The “Dues Check-off Provision” of the Farm Act prohibits agricultural producers from entering voluntary enforceable agreements to deduct union dues from farmworkers’ paychecks, a type of agreement available to all other private-sector workers in the state. Plaintiffs have appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We continue to believe the Farm Act’s anti-union provisions are a targeted, racist attack on the state’s overwhelmingly Latino farmworker community,” said Kristi Graunke, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “We appreciate the court’s refusal to allow powerful politicians and the state’s agribusiness leaders, who are overwhelmingly white, to trample upon the First Amendment rights of farmworkers to free association and expression. 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.”