New York’s first farmworker union is formed at Pindar Vineyards

More than a dozen farmworkers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic have recently been recognized as New York’s first agricultural labor union.

Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers Union was certified by the state Sept. 27 to represent the agricultural workers, after a months-long application period. It’s the first union approval the state has granted since it passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act in 2019, ensuring the right of agricultural and farm workers to collectively bargain.

“Our next step basically, is to get together … with the workers in the very, very near future and basically putting together some type of proposal of the things that they want to see or the things that they would like to see in their first contract,” said Noemi Barrera, a union representative and organizer for Local 338. 

In the longer term, she hopes other farmworkers will see “there’s a great benefit in joining a union.” Ms. Barrera said Local 338 is working with agricultural employees at other North Fork vineyards, but declined to share further details.

Rodolfo Mendez, a union member, has worked at Pindar Vineyards for nine months. He said he joined Local 338 because he hopes the union will fight for his rights and those of his co-workers.

“When one doesn’t know about one’s rights, there’s a fear that we can’t speak up, for fear of being fired or seeming problematic for standing up for one’s rights,” said Mr. Mendez, who immigrated to the U.S. 14 years ago. “As a group, we are happy because we have won a victory and we’re going to remain united because through unity there’s strength.”

He hopes union negotiations will bring benefits such as sick days and paid time off. 

Nationally, the agriculture industry has heavily relied on immigrant labor, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. In 2017, it was estimated that about 75 percent of those workers are undocumented. 

Undocumented workers are less likely to speak up about their rights due to their legal status, with many entrusting their voices to immigration activists, according to the American Studies Journal. Language barriers can also make it more difficult for immigrant workers to advocate for their own best interests, according to Bloomberg Law.

“This victory really highlights [the workers’] strength and their resilience, and their valor,” Ms. Barrera said. “For many agricultural workers, there’s always a concern about advocating for themselves. But this really shows that there’s nothing to be fearful of in fighting for their rights.”

Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country, acknowledged that New York law allows agricultural workers to unionize, but said he believes “the consensus opinion among Long Island winery owners is that unionization is undesirable as it eliminates the possibility of having a direct conversation with employees with regard to their pay and benefits.”

He added that wineries would “respect and abide by the law relating to a decision to unionize.”

Pindar Vineyards did not respond to a request for comment.