The United Farm Workers just had its biggest unionizing success in years, and it didn’t happen in California.
In a first for the historic labor union, it organized nearly 500 workers at five farms in New York. The victories, which will increase UFW’s membership by 8%, come four years after a state law passed giving farm workers the right to organize.
“For us, it’s proof of concept that when you change the laws, workers can win,” said Antonio De Loera-Brust, a UFW spokesperson.
Like many unions, UFW has struggled to organize over the last few decades, its membership dwindling from 60,000 to around 6,000. Even with legal protection, farmworker organizing is often slow, painstaking work. Many prospective union members are reluctant to give up 3% of their already low wages for dues, and worry that their immigration status leaves them vulnerable to employer retaliation.
But there are signs of a resurgence on both sides of the country.
The New York law includes components similar to recent California legislation. Its signing culminated a long battle by UFW to expand unionization rights for farm workers. Now, bolstered by the new law, some labor experts say similar victories could be on their way in the Golden State.
“Union victories in New York show us that laws do matter in protecting workers rights…So the fact there’s been these big wins, I think we should expect something like that in California,” said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.
Different states, different laws
UFW and Padilla attributed the recent certifications to the 2019 New York law, the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. The legislation prohibits retaliation against farmworkers desiring to organize, and allows them to vote by signing pro-union cards.
Prior to the law, farm workers in New York had no state-protected right to organize. That was in accordance with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which was rooted in racism and excluded farmworkers from the right to unionize without retaliation. At the time, many of those workers were Black.
Since then, only a few states have enacted legislation protecting organizing and collective bargaining for agricultural workers. Attempts at federal reform have failed repeatedly.
In states where bargaining isn’t specifically protected, farmworkers can decide to form a union but an employer does not have to negotiate a contract. UFW is currently dealing with that conflict in Washington, where workers at a mushroom farm voted to unionize but the company refuses to bargain.
From UFW’s perspective, only three states have true unionization rights — California, New York and Hawaii. Though it sometimes takes years, these states require the company to recognize the union. Even then, that doesn’t always guarantee a win.
In 2020, a major raspberry grower in Watsonville decided to shut down after losing a multi-year legal battle against UFW and being ordered to uphold a statewide contract.
‘New era in farmworker organizing’
California just approved its version of a “card check” law, giving farmworkers an additional way to unionize.
Newsom vetoed a similar measure in 2021, citing technical issues. The following year, the governor faced pressure from labor advocates and President Joe Biden. He eventually signed with the caveat that new legislation would be passed in 2023 to address “concerns around implementation and voting integrity.”
New legislation finally appeared in early May, with Newsom signing it a few weeks later.
Under the new law, farmworkers can sign cards to show their union support and drop them off at the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) office. Previously, they had to call for a union election by petitioning the ALRB and then notifying their employer. Elections would often be held at the worksite.
Labor advocates and UFW said it has been difficult to organize without the new provisions because employers could union bust and take action against workers, including threats of deportation for those who are undocumented. There have only been six union elections for farmworkers since 2016.
“It was a functionally broken process that had resulted in no new union certification for many years and it wasn’t because workers didn’t want it,” De Loera-Brust said. “It was because there were too many barriers, given the realities of poverty, immigration status and the vulnerability to retaliation that workers face.”
The union currently has 20 UFW contracts in California, representing about 5,000 to 8,000 workers. The count is taken in late December, when many farmworkers don’t work, and fluctuates annually depending on weather conditions and international trade patterns.
However, there is a possibility that unionization and membership increases because of the new legislation. Padilla said the law mirrors New York’s, indicating that the same may be coming.
“It does signal a new era in farmworker organizing,” she said.
In New York, the organized farms include four apple orchards and one vegetable grower — Wafler Farms, Cahoon Farms, Porpiglia, A&J Kirby and Lynn-Ette. Four of the five farms are located near Rochester.
Uphill battle coming?
De Loera-Brust and UFW are tight-lipped about what the California legislation means moving forward and a potential timeline for organizing, saying only that the new law is important but not a “silver bullet.” That tactic follows similar quiet organizing in New York.
But in California the union will likely face much more opposition given its history. That could mean years of laborious organizing before seeing any progress.
“It’s going to be a much harder uphill battle for the union to try to do this here,” said Rob Roy, president and general counsel for Ventura County Agricultural Association.
Roy, who advocated against the California measure, said agriculture associations have been educating members about the new law over the last six months. Much of the agricultural industry opposed the bill because they believe such a change would make it easy to commit voter fraud and force employees to unionize.
Roy also pointed to the type of farmworkers that UFW organized in New York. The majority were from Jamaica or Mexico with H-2A visas to do seasonal work.
“They really don’t have a connection with the employer,” Roy said. “Whereas in California, most of these people work most of the year or year round for particular employers.”
Roy conceded there are some agricultural employees that the union will reach, while De Loera-Brust acknowledged challenges come with UFW’s storied history.
“In California, UFW is more established,” De Loera-Brust said. “And obviously that has some perks because workers know who we are. But it also means that growers know that we’re here.”
He declined to share more on the union’s plan.
“I’m not going to share any specific California organizing strategy because growers read your paper too,” De Loera-Brust said.