A federal appeals court has upheld a North Carolina law designed to make it harder for farmworker unions to enter into collective bargaining agreements with employers.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, reversed a previous district court order, which ruled unconstitutional the 2017 law.

The lawsuit was brought by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, the only farmworker union in North Carolina, and an individual farmworker. The North Carolina Farm Bureau intervened on the side of the state to defend the law.

Jake Parker, general counsel for North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, said the appeals court “got it right. The First Amendment doesn’t give unions a right to require farmers to serve as union treasurers or to use litigation to pressure farmers to unionize their farms.

"The laws it upheld don’t stop farmers from voluntarily withholding union dues from employee paychecks or entering into collective bargaining agreements. That’s consistent with the spirit of North Carolina’s right-to-work laws.”

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez, however, said the group is “disappointed that the payroll dues deduction measure was not reversed, as well.

“We hope to have a further announcement once our attorneys have a chance to review and consult within the next few days.” The opinion was issued Dec. 28.

Jake-Parker-300x300.jpegJake Parker, North Carolina Farm Bureau

The state had argued that legislators were seeking to stop “individual plaintiffs’ efforts to use settlement agreements ‘to force collective-bargaining agreements as a settlement condition,’” the court said.

The lower court found the law’s “settlement provision” violated the First and 14th Amendments, but the appeals court, discussing the First Amendment challenge, said the settlement provision “merely proscribes certain settlement terms.” It does not prevent farmworkers and their unions from exercising their rights “to associate with one another and advance their cause through the judicial system.”

The court also said the law did not violate the 14th Amendment by denying FLOC equal protection under the law. “To be sure, FLOC marshals compelling evidence of our nation’s sordid history of racial discrimination in the agricultural industry,” the court said. But it did not find discriminatory intent on the part of legislators who passed a law affecting a workforce that is 95% Latino.

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The court ultimately decided FLOC “falls far short of demonstrating that the legislation was crafted with discriminatory intent.”

The court also affirmed the portion of the district court’s ruling that upheld the law’s prohibition against requiring employers to deduct union dues from paychecks.

“In dues checkoff agreements, the agricultural producer agrees to withhold a portion of FLOC members’ pay and then transfer the withheld earnings to FLOC as payment for that members’ union dues,” the court explained. “Because many FLOC members lack access to traditional banking institutions, this serves as a convenient way to ensure timely payment of dues.”

Legislators, however, said this created a regulatory burden for farmers. As the court noted, state Rep. Jimmy Dixon told the media the provision would “enhance [the] local agricultural community and possibly be a deterrent to outside organizations in making attempts to establish unions where folks really don’t want them or need them.” 

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