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ALBANY – For decades, the deck had undeniably been stacked against farm workers unionizing.

Until 2019, farm workers in New York had no right to collectively bargain with employers. That year, the state Legislature – newly under full Democratic control – passed a law protecting farm workers’ unionization rights and prohibiting retaliation against those seeking to organize.

But upstate farm owners say the law has swung the balance of power too far the other way, granting labor unions unique advantages in organizing their workplaces. Those advantages, they argue, have been compounded by state regulators, who investigate complaints about employers, while declining to examine alleged union abuses.

New York’s Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act has enabled the California-based United Farm Workers to successfully organize five upstate orchards or farms. Two New York-based unions have organized an additional 125 farm workers.

But at the height of the harvest season, the union success is now being challenged in a battle stretching from Mexico, to Long Island vineyards, to a federal courthouse in Buffalo.

Earlier this month, five upstate farms – including two in Orleans County – filed a federal lawsuit seeking to strike down aspects of the 2019 law. If successful, the lawsuit could effectively derail efforts to unionize New York’s farms.

‘In limbo’
Farm owners have their own stories to tell.

In July 2022, a group of men waited at a hotel on the Mexican side of the border for final approval to enter the United States on work visas. According to worker testimony, the owner had someone knock on the doors of the men, who were set to work that harvest season at Crist Bros. Orchards in the Hudson Valley.

As they gathered in the lobby, some men thought they’d been summoned that day by their employer. But as the meeting began, a labor union organizer, not their employer, was addressing them. A video of the meeting, in Matamoras, Mexico, was taken by one of the workers.

The United Farm Workers organizer, Isabel Egas, made a spirited pitch for the men to sign union authorization cards – the crucial step towards forming a farm worker union in New York.

Egas said signing “actually guarantees that you come back next year” to work. One worker asked whether it was mandatory to join the union.

“This is not mandatory but either way we are going in to the company,” Egas replied. “Do you know the difference in signing now and signing later? I know who signed already from the cards that got signed I know who they are and these enter the system first. I will then (attend to) those who did not sign and they will have to wait (through) a longer process and they will stay in limbo.”

According to the union’s spokesman, Egas was not suggesting workers would not be permitted into the United States if they didn’t sign: She was explaining that not signing would delay the union’s certification, forcing workers to “wait longer for a union contract and the benefits it brings.”

But some of the workers later stated they’d felt pressured and threatened into signing the cards.

…continued at BuffaloNews.com 

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