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Farmworker provisions survive constitutional attacks

Where a labor union alleged that two provisions of North Carolina’s Farm Act violated its First Amendment Rights, its argument was rejected. The provisions left undisturbed the ability of farmworkers and farmworker unions to associate with one another and advance their cause through the judicial system.


Section 20.5 of North Carolina’s 2017 Farm Act contains provisions making it illegal to enter into two types of contractual agreements: (1) any settlement agreement conditioned on an agricultural producer’s union affiliation and (2) any agreement that would require an agricultural producer to process dues checkoffs for its farmworker-employees.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, contends that these prohibitions violate the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The district court held that the settlement provision violated the Constitution and so enjoined it, but upheld the constitutionality of the dues provision, and then held that neither provision violated § 1981.

Settlement provision

The settlement provision prohibits parties from agreeing to any settlement that is conditioned on an agricultural producer’s affiliation (or non-affiliation) with a labor union. FLOC urges the court to resist this natural reading of the settlement provision and hold instead, as the district court did, that the provision prohibits an agricultural producer from entering into any (and every) settlement agreement with a labor union.

FLOC’s reading, however, cannot be reconciled with the settlement provision’s unambiguous text and statutory context. The settlement provision is not aimed at precluding settlements based on who the parties are but rather what those settlement conditions say. This unambiguous reading accords with the relevant legislative history.

FLOC also maintains that the settlement provision violates the First Amendment because it eliminates its members’ right of expressive association and ability “to advance their shared goals through litigation.” This argument falters at the outset because, as explained above, the settlement provision merely proscribes certain settlement terms. Because the settlement provision leaves undisturbed the ability of farmworkers and farmworker unions to associate with one another and advance their cause through the judicial system, this court sees no First Amendment violation.

Dues provision

The parties agree that the dues provision bars the creation of contracts that require an agricultural producer to process dues checkoffs for its employees. But they diverge on whether an agricultural producer could decide to process dues checkoffs for farmworkers on a voluntary, informal basis. The court believe that is, under the statute, agricultural producers retain discretion as to whether to process dues checkoffs. The dues provision only prohibits “agreement[s]” that strip agricultural producers of such discretion. The legislative history confirms this conclusion.

FLOC nevertheless contends that the dues provision violates the First Amendment because it singles FLOC out for an “onerous regulatory burden” that has hampered its ability to engage in expressive activity. As an initial matter, the court is unconvinced by FLOC’s argument that it has been selectively targeted in the same manner as the newspapers in Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575 (1983). Moreover, FLOC remains able “to associate, to solicit members, to express its views, to publish or disseminate material, to engage in political activities, [and] to affiliate or cooperate with other groups.”

Fourteenth Amendment

FLOC asks that the court recognize that North Carolina farmworkers and their union are entitled to heightened scrutiny, as a quasi-suspect class, whenever their classification is invoked through legislation. But § 20.5 does not classify persons based on any “obvious, immutable, or distinguishing characteristics.” To the extent the statute incorporates any classification at all, that classification relates to a given economic sector — agriculture — not anything inherent to an individual’s identity or an attribute shared by all farmworkers. The court also rejects FLOC’s argument that because North Carolina farmworkers disproportionately belong to already-defined protected classes (i.e., Latinx, non-citizens), any law that classifies on the basis of agriculture cannot be “neutral.”

FLOC also contends that strict scrutiny review applies because North Carolina used a facially neutral classification to produce a discriminatory impact motivated by a discriminatory purpose. But FLOC falls far short of demonstrating that the legislation was crafted with discriminatory intent.

Under the applicable rational-basis review, the statute survives. Agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry, which makes it a subject of great interest for state legislators. The state also embraces its right-to-work policies and has worked repeatedly to strengthen them. And both challenged provisions respond to discrete legislative concerns.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part and vacated in part.

Concurring opinion

Richardson, J., concurring in the judgment:

In my view, even a broad reading of the settlement provision—that it bars all settlement agreements between an agricultural producer and a labor union—does not violate the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects collective action undertaken to obtain meaningful access to the courts. But the broad reading doesn’t lock parties out of the courtroom. Just the opposite: It locks parties inside the courtroom. Because it is clear to me that neither reading of the settlement provision would violate the First Amendment, I would leave the statutory interpretation question for a different day before a different court.

Farm Labor Organizing Committee v. Stein, Case Nos. 21-1499, 21-1541, Dec. 29, 2022. 4th Cir. (Motz), from MDNC at Greensboro (Biggs). Kristi Lee Graunke for Appellants/Cross-Appellees. Matthew Thomas Tulchin for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. VLW 022-2-273. 26 pp.

VLW 022-2-273