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Top Stories 2021: First farmworker union forms at Pindar Vineyards

More than a dozen farmworkers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic were recognized as New York’s first agricultural labor union this fall.

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 monthslong 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.

Rodolfo Mendez, a union member, hopes union negotiations will bring benefits such as sick days and paid time off. 

“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.”

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% 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.

“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,” said Noemi Barrera, a union representative and organizer for Local 338.

Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country, 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.”