By Brian Hauss
Staff Attorney, Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at ACLU National
Dolores Huerta, the legendary civil rights icon and farmworker activist, had it right: “Organized labor is a necessary part of democracy.” Day in and day out, unions struggle to make sure that farmworkers have a voice in in their workplace and in their communities, but they face enormous obstacles.
Farmworkers, most of whom are people of color and many of whom are in this country on temporary visas, have long been excluded from federal and state labor laws. That means they don’t enjoy many of the key protections under the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and numerous state minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and youth employment laws. As a result, they face high risks to their health and safety, substandard living conditions, and abuse and exploitation by their employers.
Now North Carolina has mounted a direct assault on the state’s only farmworkers union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which works tirelessly to protect those workers. A new state law, sponsored and supported by legislators who have a financial interest in suppressing farmworker organizing, would make it all but impossible for the union to operate effectively in the state. Together with a coalition of civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the North Carolina Justice Center, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the law violates farmworkers’ constitutional and civil rights. We have also asked the court for a preliminary injunction, which would suspend the law’s operation during the course of the litigation.
The lawsuit challenges the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017, which attacks FLOC in two different ways. First, the law invalidates contracts guaranteeing that employers will honor their employees’ requests to deduct union dues from their paychecks, otherwise known as union dues checkoffs. Farmworkers, many of whom lack access to basic banking services, rely on these checkoffs to make timely and regular contributions to the union. Without checkoffs, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the union to collect the money it needs to operate. Second, the law invalidates settlement agreements negotiated by the union to advance farmworkers’ rights, fatally undermining lawsuits meant to improve the working conditions of farmworkers throughout North Carolina.
North Carolina’s law clearly violates farmworkers’ First Amendment rights to association and expression. As the Supreme Court has long recognized, “The practice of persons sharing common views banding together to achieve a common end is deeply embedded in the American political process.” That’s why the First Amendment prohibits the government from adopting measures that are directly intended to burden expressive associations like labor unions. Thus, for example, the Supreme Court rejected state government attempts to attack the NAACP by forcing the organization to disclose its membership lists and preventing it from assisting in litigation. As the court recognized, groups like FLOC and the NAACP serve to empower marginalized voices. If the government is allowed to destroy these groups, those voices will be effectively silenced.
North Carolina’s law also violates other important constitutional and statutory civil rights protections, including the Equal Protection Clause. By targeting FLOC alone, the law intentionally discriminates against the state’s farmworkers, a group largely composed of noncitizen migrant workers from Mexico. It’s worth mentioning that the law was sponsored by state Sen. Brent Jackson, the owner of Jackson Farming Company, which was recently sued by Latino farmworkers with FLOC’s assistance. State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, the only legislator to speak in support of the law’s anti-worker provisions on the statehouse floor, said that the law was necessary “because there seems to be a growing of folks that are interested in farm labor.”
Whatever North Carolina legislators might think, the Constitution does not give them the authority to suppress labor movements. We’re fighting to make sure that FLOC and its members can continue to advocate, loudly and proudly, for farmworkers’ interests.