For far too long, farm workers in New York have been subject to discrimination, abuse, and exploitation. They have reported enduring 70-hour, seven-day work weeks without overtime pay. They toil in extreme heat in the summer months but are cruelly denied adequate bathroom breaks or enough access to water. Farm workers often are forced to venture into the fields in seek of relief, where they are subjected to exposure to ticks and potentially hazardous chemicals. For female farm workers, this can be even more dehumanizing, exposing more of their bodies to these hazards, and even risking sexual harassment as they undress to relieve themselves. Women in agricultural work are at increased risk of uterine tract infections due to their exposure in the fields.
When workers suffer from injuries or health problems––dehydration, cuts, broken limbs––they often find they are on their own, without adequate medical care. When they seek out medical care, they pay out of their own pockets. Rather than risk missing work and the income they need to survive, many agricultural workers are forced to stay on the job despite injuries.
These workers––largely immigrants––have suffered while toiling in a multimillion-dollar industry that often uses their documentation status as a tool to exploit and intimidate them. And they’ve never been able to seek out the best tool workers have to protect them: unions and collective bargaining. Shockingly, under New York law, they were forbidden from bargaining collectively and exercising the rights most New Yorkers take for granted.
The RWDSU and a coalition including the NY AFL-CIO and others fought hard to change that, and in 2019 secured the passage of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which finally gave countless farm and agricultural workers the right to bargain collectively and create better lives for themselves. And now, we are already seeing results.
A group of farm workers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, New York, became the first farmworkers in the state to join a union when they became members of RWDSU Local 338 in early October. Their historic victory makes them the first group of agricultural workers to win a union voice so they can negotiate a contract that will ensure better pay and working conditions. These workers––who reported discrimination while being treated far worse than the retail “tasting staff”––have seized the opportunity to change their jobs and their lives by joining the RWDSU.
Countless farm workers in New York can look to this worker victory as an inspiration and the first step toward changing their own lives. With the labor movement at their side, New York’s farm workers can finally exercise their right to join a union, and claim dignity, respect, and a voice on a job. By bargaining collectively, they can begin to address they many issues they face at work.
New York’s agricultural workers are entering a new era, and the RWDSU will be with them every step of the way. Fighting back against exploitation and mistreatment with the power of collective bargaining starts now.
Stuart Appelbaum is president, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: www.rwdsu.org; Twitter: Sappelbaum