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Judge says farm workers’ union law provision is unconstitutional

By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s only farm worker union is pleased despite mixed decisions so far from federal courts about a 2017 law it says obstructs mostly Latino field hands organizing for better benefits and conditions.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs issued a permanent injunction this week declaring a provision is unconstitutional that prevents legal settlements between workers and farms from including mandates for a farm to enter a collective bargaining agreement. Bargaining agreements between FLOC and farms in North Carolina are voluntary.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, with more than 9,000 members in the state, said the legislation it challenged in court  included a power play by lawmakers linked to agricultural interests as FLOC made organizing inroads in a state with otherwise low union membership.

“Farmworkers are essential workers who put food on the tables of families throughout the country,” FLOC president and founder Baldemar Velasquez said in a news release Thursday praising Biggs’ action. “They deserve better than being bullied by politicians trying to deprive them of the same rights that all other private-sector workers have.”

Biggs had already agreed in March with a U.S. magistrate judge’s recommendation that the settlement provision violated the First Amendment and other equal protection language. Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld wrote the language “broadly prohibits all settlement agreements between FLOC and agricultural producers.”

She also, however, agreed with Auld in upholding the bill’s other union-related provision that prohibited farming operations from entering into agreements to collect union dues from workers. Auld wrote FLOC failed to present evidence showing how it affects its members, and that the law does not prevent farms from agreeing outside of a bargaining agreement to offer such dues collection.

FLOC already appealed Biggs’ earlier dues checkoff ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The union will be successful because “farmworkers are entitled to the same rights as other North Carolina workers to freely choose” whether dues are deducted, said Kristi Graunke, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina representing the plaintiffs.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, farmer and a chief sponsor of the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017, had no comment Thursday on the rulings, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans said. Union language was initially added to the bill in the House.

The office of Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, who is now the lone defendant as he enforces state law, is reviewing the ruling, spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed said. Stein could appeal Judge Biggs’ ruling, issued Wednesday in Greensboro federal court.

Biggs told Stein to ensure local prosecutors and the state labor commissioner were aware of her ruling. The ACLU of North Carolina said it knew of no such pending prosecutions related to the union settlement provision.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who signed the legislation into law, was initially named a defendant but was removed. He took heat from FLOC when he signed the bill. Cooper’s office had pointed out the bill’s bipartisan support and other provisions that helped North Carolina’s farming industry.

FLOC currently has one collective bargaining agreement in the state that covers 9,400 workers and 700 farms within the North Carolina Growers Association, the state ACLU says. Most laborers under the association contract are guest workers from Mexico. The minimum wage for these “H-2A” workers are $13.15 an hour.

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