Judge blocks law that stops farmworker union activities

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge blocked a North Carolina law limiting organized labor’s work with farmworkers, siding with a magistrate’s ruling that said the law is unconstitutional because it treats those unions differently than others in the state.

The ruling signed Thursday by U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs means the law cannot go into effect while a legal challenge filed on behalf of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee proceeds.

The law, which the Republican-controlled legislature enacted in 2017 through a last-minute amendment in the House, prohibits farming operations from collecting union dues from workers. It also blocks any future legal settlements requiring a farm to enter into a collective bargaining agreement.

“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 with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a news release.

A federal magistrate had issued a legal recommendation in August saying the law violated the 14th Amendment because it treats farmworker unions differently than other unions. Biggs affirmed that recommendation.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County, who was a turkey farmer for 41 years, sponsored the amendment that included the anti-union language. He said he hadn’t read the magistrate’s decision, which quotes him extensively.

“I would do anything to keep us from becoming unionized to the extent that some of the other areas are,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think it’s counter-productive.”

About 80 percent of FLOC’s approximately 6,000 dues-paying members work in North Carolina, the decision said. Of those, the vast majority come to the state from Mexico as H-2A guest workers, it said.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of FLOC and two individual farmworkers claims the law “discriminates against farmworkers and their union compared to all other private sector workers and unions in North Carolina,” U.S. Magistrate Judge L. Patrick Auld wrote. Attorney General Josh Stein, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, didn’t dispute that contention, the decision reads.

A spokeswoman for Stein said the attorney general’s office is reviewing the decision, which came as Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters inundated southeastern North Carolina, where much of the state’s agriculture is based.

“Judge Biggs’ decision to enjoin this discriminatory law means that FLOC can get back to work focusing on the needs of its members,” Clermont Ripley, staff attorney with the N.C. Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, said in a news release. “This is more critical than ever right now as farmworkers throughout eastern North Carolina are struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Florence.”


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