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Farmworkers, Civil Rights Groups Sue State Over Law

Many of the foods North Carolina families eat at Thanksgiving are harvested by migrant farmworkers. (Deb Nystrom/flickr)
Many of the foods North Carolina families eat at Thanksgiving are harvested by migrant farmworkers. (Deb Nystrom/flickr)
November 16, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The state of North Carolina is a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday challenging a state law that prevents farmworkers from organizing to protect their rights on the job.

The case was filed by the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. They argue that the North Carolina Farm Act, passed this summer, violates workers' First Amendment rights.

FLOC organizer Justin Flores said all residents should care about the rights of the people who harvest their food, especially at this time of year.

"As we approach Thanksgiving and even more so Christmas, many folks aren't aware that almost an entirely migrant workforce harvests Christmas trees, as well as sweet potatoes, squash, you name it - it's all produced by immigrant labor,” Flores said.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government cannot impose special burdens on groups such as unions.

Flores said the law passed swiftly this summer, without time for public comment. It prevents workers from having union dues taken out of pay checks and prohibits farm owners from signing agreements with workers to improve working conditions on farms.

The law's primary sponsor was State Sen. Brent Jackson, who owns Jackson Farming Company and was recently sued for wage theft by Latino farmworkers.

Supporters of the legislation say it's meant to protect workers from being forced to join a union. Flores said that's not an accurate representation of why protecting farmworkers' rights to organize is important.

"The enforcement methods in agriculture are complaint-driven,” he explained. “So even with the best effort, agencies have trouble fully inspecting factories and other fixed-site workplaces."

There are more than 100,000 farmworkers in North Carolina, generating more than $12 billion annually for the state economy. The vast majority are Latino and work under H2A visas.

Reporting by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the Park Foundation.

Stephanie Carson/Cynthia Howard, Public News Service - NC