Farmworkers gather in New York to chart future of policy and organizing goals

Farmworkers and labor organizers from across North America will convene in New York City this weekend for a “people’s tribunal,” where they plan to produce a list of overarching priorities that will guide their organizing efforts going forward.

The Bi-National People’s Tribunal on the Struggles of Farmworkers is the brainchild of the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a coalition of advocacy groups fighting for food workers’ rights from farm to table. Farmworker organizers from at least a half dozen states are planning to attend, along with organizers from Ontario, Canada; former H-2A guestworkers are also planning to participate remotely from Mexico and Jamaica.

After years of organizing “defensively” against business-friendly immigration laws, anti-union court rulings, and other policies, “this is really a moment where we need to be putting together a broader, collective vision of farmworker justice,” said FCWA co-director Sonia Singh, who helped organize the event.

To some workers and advocates, the conference feels particularly urgent. Agricultural work has long been one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, and it’s only becoming more so as climate change intensifies. A National Institutes of Health study found that farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat than other workers, and outdoor workers’ exposure to hazardous heat is expected to quadruple by 2065.

Currently, there is no national heat standard — though labor rights groups have urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop one — and while some states have adopted heat standards, others have made it a point to repeal them. Earlier this month, the Florida legislature passed a bill preventing any city, county, or municipality in the state from adopting policies that would protect outdoor workers from extreme heat. The Texas legislature passed a similar law last summer, although its impact has mostly been felt in cities.

Climate change is just one of a range of pressing issues organizers hope to cover. Farmworkers are also famously underpaid for their dangerous work, and they’re uniquely prevented from organizing to improve their circumstances; long excluded from some federal labor protections, they have no federal right to form a union. A handful of states have compensated for this exclusion with laws of their own, but farmworkers’ right to organize in these states have also been attacked.

Last October, a coalition of farmers sued New York State over its law granting farmworkers the right to unionize, arguing that it gives farmworker organizers unique and unfair advantages by allowing them to conduct union elections without a secret ballot. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a long-standing California law that allowed union organizers to meet farmworkers at their place of work, siding with farmers who claimed the law violated their property rights.

Despite these myriad challenges, farmworker organizers have also enjoyed a string of recent union victories. The United Farm Workers (UFW), the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers have collectively unionized a number of apple farms, vineyards, and dairies in the past year and a half. Earlier this month in California, the UFW organized more than 600 workers at Wonderful Nurseries, a grapevine nursery and subsidiary of the colossal Wonderful Company, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world. (The Wonderful Company is now suing the UFW over alleged fraudulent conduct, and the UFW filed its fifth Unfair Labor Practice charge against the company yesterday.) 

According to the FCWA’s press release, this weekend’s three-day event will follow a “tribunal” structure. It will revolve around hours of listening sessions, where farmworkers will share testimonials about the harsh working conditions they experience and the legal protections they deserve. Six longtime labor experts and advocates, or “jurors,” will be present at all of the sessions, and at the end of the conference, they will come up with a list of recommended top priorities for workers and organizers based on what they’ve heard. This will ultimately result in a post-tribunal report.

“You can’t stop fighting,” said Yesenia, a former dairy worker and farmworker organizer from New York who planned to attend the event (she asked that FERN use only her first name because she feared retaliation from her previous employer). “Everything takes effort, and these things are never easy.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated that the UFW organized more than 600 workers at Wonderful Nurseries last November. In fact, California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) certified the union’s representation earlier this month. We regret the error. The story has also been updated to reflect that the UFW filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Wonderful Company yesterday.