by Lakshmi Gandhi
This story was originally published at Prism.
A group of 12 agricultural workers at an exclusive vineyard on Long Island has just officially formed New York state’s first farmworkers union—a landmark move resulting from decades of activism aimed at creating better job security and benefits for the more than 55,000 farmworkers in the state.
The New York State Public Employment Relations Board officially certified Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW to represent the workers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, New York, on Sept. 28.
The newly unionized Pindar Vineyards farmworkers say a major reason they pushed to unionize was to improve their work conditions and finally get access to health care and retirement funds.
“My co-workers at Pindar and I joined Local 338 because we want dignity and respect,” Pindar Vineyards worker Rodolfo M. said in a statement. “Our work should be valued, and only by receiving equal treatment and things like sick days and paid time off to spend with our loved ones will it be.”
The move was closely watched by union organizers and worker advocacy groups across the state and country, who note that the creation of the new union can be attributed to the impact of 2019’s Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which guaranteed farmworkers in New York the right to collectively bargain and receive essential benefits. The battle to pass the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act spanned 20 years, says Angel Reyes Rivas, the Long Island coordinator for Rural and Migrant Ministry, a nonprofit organization that works closely with farmworkers across New York.
“It was a legislative effort promoting certain rights for farmworkers that they did not have, but every other worker in the state had,” Rivas said. “Some of those rights were the right to a day off, the right to overtime pay—and one of them was the right to collectively bargain.”
Federal and most state laws have exempted farmworkers from standard worker protections afforded by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. As Pew notes, excluding agricultural and domestic workers from these provisions was both intentional and rooted in racism. The 1938 law “was written to exclude Black field workers in order to win the support of Southern Democrats,” and the racial divisions it created in the labor market continue to this day, with the majority of current agricultural workers in the United States being Latinx. While the Department of Agriculture estimates that about half of all farmworkers in the United States are undocumented, farm owners and contractors estimated to The New York Times last year that the actual number was about 75%. As for New York specifically, in 2018, New York Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball estimated that half of the state’s farmworkers lacked legal status.
The New York state law states that farmworkers who work over 60 hours a week are eligible for overtime pay. This standard has already been established in California and is being proposed by other lawmakers across the country. In June, Oregon lawmakers considered legislation that would provide farmworkers with overtime, a move that followed the passage of overtime bills in Washington state (which would gradually lead to farmworkers receiving overtime for more than 40 hours of work over the next three years) and Colorado. Minnesota, Hawaii, and Maryland also provide overtime to farmworkers, a policy encouraged by the White House.
After Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the farmworkers overtime bill into law in May, President Joe Biden commended the move and said he hoped it was the start of a broader movement to get more agricultural workers overtime pay. The Biden administration has also made improving farmworker rights and working conditions part of its Build Back Better plan, with legislative action that includes the proposed U.S. Citizenship Act, which details a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, especially those who played a critical role in sustaining the U.S. economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislative package also includes the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which strengthens the existing guest worker program.
“For too long—and owing in large part to unconscionable race-based exclusions put in place generations ago—farmworkers have been denied some of the most fundamental rights that workers in almost every other sector have long enjoyed,” Biden said in a statement. “It is long past time that we put all of America’s farmworkers on an equal footing with the rest of our national workforce when it comes to their basic rights.”
Rivas notes that until the passage of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, farmworkers in New York also faced the prospect of being fired if they asked for time off and also did not have access to employer-provided healthcare plans or retirement savings accounts, all problems encountered by agricultural workers nationwide. As advocates worked to get the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act passed, they also had to contend with the well-funded opposition by farmers.
“They’ve been looking out for their own interests for many, many years, and that’s also one of the reasons why the passage of this bill took 20-something years,” he said. “But we knew we had to continue; our effort was one of social justice and equality.” The campaign to get the bill passed also involved relationship building with worker organizations throughout the state and with Democratic lawmakers in both legislative bodies and then-governor Andrew Cuomo.
Rivas, who worked closely with the Pindar union organizers, said that as with all union efforts, especially those that involve a primarily immigrant and multilingual workforce, building trust amongst workers and clearly articulating the need for collective action was key.
“We can tell them what the law is, and we can tell them what we can do and what unions can do, but in the end, it’s their decision [on whether or not to unionize],” Rivas said. “They know they are putting themselves on the line—that’s a fact. We know the benefits of being part of a union, but we also paint the whole picture.”
Following the Pindar Vineyards union’s lead, Rivas says he expects more unions to form amongst farmworkers throughout New York state.
“I think many workers who were on the fence or are maybe still considering their options or needed more information, now they’ll see these workers, and they will see the type of contract that they get and they will now see that it is possible,” Rivas said. “So we’re hoping that this historic effort will give workers the necessary confidence for many more unions on Long Island and also throughout the state of New York.”
Lakshmi Gandhi is a reporter, editor, and social media manager based in New York City. She is currently a freelance journalist who specializes in literature, identity, and pop culture.
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