NC Farmworkers Win Key Union Victory

When the North Carolina legislature passed a law barring the collection of union dues from farmworker paychecks in 2017, it made it functionally impossible for farmworkers in the state to organize. The bill follows a growing anti-union trend across the country, with states using “right to work” legislation and other tactics to suppress labor organizing.

But in North Carolina, union advocates just got a ray of hope: A federal court just blocked the law, saying it was unconstitutional.

This might seem like no big deal in a climate where so many things on the legislative level are going so wrong, but for farmworkers, it’s a huge victory.

Approximately 150,000 people work on North Carolina farms, and many of them are immigrants. Alone or in small groups, they can’t advocate for themselves; they face wage theft, underpayment, poor working conditions, and other oppressive situations. But with the force of a union, they can work together to negotiate better pay and conditions for themselves, making the production of food — and in North Carolina, tobacco — more just.

The legislation specifically banned the practice of allowing employers to transfer union dues directly to unions. This is an incredibly common way to process such dues, and it’s especially important for immigrants, who may lack bank accounts and other resources they need to pay their bills on their own.

The process of collecting those dues via other means would have been prohibitively complex, so the law effectively said that unions couldn’t collect the funds they need to function.

This is a so-called “right to work” state. Contrary to what the name might lead you to believe, these laws are not pro-worker. Instead, they require workplaces to offer a choice of enrolling in a union or not — and if workers don’t join, they can still benefit from the work of the union without paying dues or fees. This undermines labor unions by limiting their financial resources.

Destabilizing unions like the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) — the only such union in North Carolina — wasn’t the only thing this very large bill did. It also undermined FLOC’s ability to negotiate by barring employers from signing agreements with unions when they’re related to a lawsuit. Numerous civil rights and liberties organizations were concerned by the implications of the law, and collaborated to challenge it.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), North Carolina Justice Center, and Law Offices of Robert J. Willis filed this suit alongside FLOC and two workers. They claimed the law interfered with the First Amendment right to free association, and that it was discriminatory, violating the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, since farmworkers in North Carolina are disproportionately Latinx.

The court ruling in favor of FLOC draws upon substantial Supreme Court precedent affirming the right to labor organizing. In the short term, that’s a good thing for North Carolina workers who benefit from the work of FLOC; it will facilitate labor organizing and good faith negotiation with employers, empowering people to take control of their working lives and fight back against exploitation. In the long term, it joins a body of work affirming that people have the right to free association in the workplace, and may organize into a union if they would like to do so.

At a time when teacher strikes are erupting across the country, the labor movement is alive and well. The push to pass legislation to suppress labor organizing is proof of that — and this victory shows the value of fighting back when states attempt to interfere with workers’ rights.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Public Domain


Dave f
Past Member 3 months ago

Signed .

Dave fleming
Past Member 3 months ago

Signed .

Mia B
Mia B4 months ago

thank you for sharing

Danuta W
Danuta W4 months ago

Thank you for sharing

KS Goh4 months ago

Thanks for the article

Chad Anderson
Chad A4 months ago

Thank you.

Edith B
Edith B4 months ago

I am glad the Supreme Court made its ruling before Kavanaugh got there.

Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn4 months ago

Many thanks to you !

Anne M
Anne Moran4 months ago

Nothing like sticking up for your ‘brother’... - Unions are not what they used to be though..

Sue H
Sue H4 months ago

Good to know, thanks.