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“When The Laws Change, Workers Really Can Win”: Farmworkers, UFW Celebrate Historic Unionization In New York State

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Farmworkers and labor organizers in New York have scored one of their biggest wins in years. United Farm Workers (UFW) has unionized 500 workers across four apple farms and one vegetable farm in the state, The Guardian exclusively reports. “It’s the union’s biggest organizing success in years, and the first time the California-based union has organized in the north-east,” the report said.

Most of the newly unionized farmworkers are H-2A holders from Jamaica and Mexico. Among them is Santos Mendoza Escamilla, a Lynn-Ette & Sons worker who now feels like he has somebody in his corner. “Sometimes we are pushed to work so hard, it doesn’t feel doable,” Mendoza Escamilla told The Guardian. “It was always the boss’s word. Now with a union, we feel we have someone pushing back.”

Junior Johnson, a Wafler Farms farmworker from Jamaica, expressed similar concerns about the level of productivity expected from workers. If you’ve seen the on-the-ground videos shared by UFW in the past, you know farmwork is high-skilled labor that must often be performed at a rapid pace. Many workers must also harvest large quantities of produce, fruit, and other products because they get paid according to volume.

“Celsa sent us this photo from where she is harvesting cherries in Grandview WA,” UFW captioned in one recent tweet. “Workers wrap their fingers to prevent blisters from forming due to the repetitive work. Celsa earns for $4.50 for a 22 lb bucket.” That works out to about 18 cents a pound. It’s worth remembering the next time you do your grocery shopping.

“We have no say. We have no rights,” Johnson, the worker in New York state, told The Guardian. “If we go to the morning meeting and a worker wants to complain, the boss says, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ We have no one beside the union to stand up for us. We have to keep our mouths closed.” H-2A workers can also be highly vulnerable to workplace abuses, because they are dependent on employers for visa sponsorship.

The unionization has been a years-in-the-making win. It follows New York’s 2019 passage of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which sought to rectify the racist exclusion of farmworkers from union protections under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, as well as provide unemployment insurance and overtime pay. There is in fact a long and shameful history of workers of color being blocked from certain workplace protections. Millions of farmworkers (as well as domestic workers) were denied overtime and minimum wage protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. 

States including California have taken action on their own to enact legislation guaranteeing farmworkers overtime pay. In Maine, the legislature this month passed a bill improving farmworkers’ pay and ensuring other protections. Gov. Janet Mills is reviewing the bill and has until July 19 to decide whether to sign it, Portland Press Herald reports. State House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross told the outlet that while farmworkers in the state make more than the federal minimum wage, “they are not legally protected by Maine’s minimum wage provisions. Are Maine’s farmworkers worthy of similar legal protections? In my mind, the answer is clearly yes.”

Meanwhile, New York is only one of three states “where farm workers can organize,” UFW President Teresa Romero told The Guardian. The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which went into effect in 2020, “grants farm workers overtime pay, a day of rest each week, disability and Paid Family Leave coverage, unemployment benefits and other labor protections,” the state’s Department of Labor said. “Farm workers are protected from retaliation, including termination, if they are speaking to each other about labor conditions and organizing.”

Prior to the law, farmworkers “could be fired for attempting to form a union, and they were systematically threatened with deportation if they complained to their employer about working conditions,” RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy told The Guardian. What a way to treat the workers who feed America. 

“They had no right to a day off each week,” Kennedy continued. “No overtime pay. No unemployment insurance. We worked for about a decade to pass the farm worker Fair Labor Practices Act, and that remedied nearly all those issues.” The report said that in addition to unionization by the UFW, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers also organized roughly 125 workers at a number of other farms in the state. State Senator Jessica Ramos, the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act main sponsor in the chamber, estimates there are 80,000 – 100,000 farmworkers in the state.

It’s a long overdue win for farmworkers – and for all of us as well. These workers feed America, and when we ensure they can do their essential jobs safely, with dignity, and with the rights guaranteed to other U.S. workers, it benefits everyone. “It’s amazing,” Romero continued to The Guardian. “When the laws change, workers really can win.”