North Carolina farmworkers win back right to bargain for dues checkoff
FLOC

RALEIGH, N.C—In a win for North Carolina’s unionized farm workers, a federal judge reinstated the right of their union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, to negotiate for a dues checkoff in contracts it signs with state tobacco growers and other farmers.

In a ruling which U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs upheld in late September against screams from the North Carolina Farm Bureau, Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld said the state Republicans’ Farm Law, a ban on such negotiations and dues checkoff, violated the U.S. Constitution. The two judges, combined, threw it out.

In a telephone interview, FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez called the ruling “surprising but gratifying.” He also said he was not surprised the GOP’s law targeted his union, whose members are Latino, Latina and African-American workers. The law’s sponsors are white.

“They don’t have to wear white sheets anymore,” he said of Farm Law sponsors, who were led by two GOP grower-legislators. “And you can quote me on that.”

In practical terms the GOP’s Farm Law hamstrung the union’s ability to collect dues through a checkoff and forcing its small staff to traverse the roads of the Tar Heel State every month to pick up checks, Velasquez said. It had had a 2.5 percent dues checkoff in its contracts.

“It would have prevented us from doing things like suing farms for wage theft,” which costs the workers hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly, he added. Now, with the judges’ decision, such suits can go ahead, because the FLOC staff can spend time on them, not dues.

FLOC represents some 10,000 North Carolina farm workers right now, though its numbers were growing before the law passed. But there are 130,000-150,000 migrant farm workers, virtually all from Latin America, in the state, and being exploited by the growers.

The Farm Bureau, the growers and the Republicans tried to get FLOC’s complaint, which the American Civil Liberties Union joined, thrown out of court because it names state Attorney General Josh Stein as the enforcer of the anti-dues checkoff law.

The growers said he’s immune from such suits because a state is immune, too. Auld said, in so many words, “nuts,” and Biggs agreed. Auld ruled against the law.

It “likely violates farmworkers’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection. Ninety percent of the state’s farmworkers are Latino,” Auld said and Biggs agreed.

“Because an unconstitutional statute is void, it cannot cloak” Stein “in the state’s sovereign immunity,” Auld said and Biggs agreed, tossing the law and ruling for the union.

The heavily gerrymandered and heavily Republican legislature passed the ban at the behest of the two leading lawmakers/growers, who inserted it at the last minute into the state Senate version of an unrelated measure. The two then left it in during House-Senate negotiations and the governor signed it.

The two openly said they wanted to stop FLOC’s new organizing in its tracks by forcing the union to divert much of its small staff, money and time to collecting dues.

It’s growing, the union notes, because of the awful conditions the growers impose on the farm workers, as the suit reveals. The workers, most of them migrant laborers from Mexico toiling in the U.S. under H2-A visas in conditions rife with “workplace grievances, workplace injuries, wage theft and other legal matters” FLOC helps them contend with.

FLOC told Auld, who ruled in their favor, that the so-called Farm Act violated the union’s and the workers’ 1st Amendment free speech and freedom of association rights and their equal protection rights. The Farm Act had already prevented FLOC from signing a definitive contract with one big diversified grower in Eastern North Carolina, Velasquez said, because it couldn’t put in the dues checkoff.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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