Some of the 14 farm workers at Pindar Vineyards to organize under the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, the first farm worker's union in the state. Photo: Courtesy of Local 338

New York farm workers have their first union — and it’s on the North Fork.

Workers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic became the first farm workers to organize and form a union under the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. They were certified by the New York State Public Employment Relations Board to be represented by Local 338, a union representing food and commercial workers in various industries.

The Pindar union is a historic first for New York State after an appellate court decision in 2019 found that the 1937 State Employment Relations Act violated the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain outlined in the New York State Constitution. The passage of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act in 2019 gave farm workers the same employment rights as workers in other industries under the law.

“We are very thankful to God,” Rudolfo Mendez, a year-round field worker and groundskeeper at Pindar said an interview. “All the workers here, we are very happy.” 

Mendez said membership in Local 338 allowed the farm workers to have their rights under the law recognized.

Noemi Barrera, a union representative who is working with the Pindar workers, said the next step is for the union and vineyard’s attorneys to negotiate. Paid holidays, sick days and time off are a priority, she said.

“Other entities or other places of work have had these rights all along,” Barrera said. “Something so simple as a day off to rest or a sick day and even a holiday, they haven’t been given any type of respect in regards to that.”

The Long Island Farm Bureau, local farm owners and local state legislators were opposed to unionization when the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act was passed. Local farmers have warned that on top of the financial stresses of the pandemic, further amendments to their workers’ labor rights — like a proposed reduction to the threshold for overtime pay from 60 hours per week — could be the final nail in the coffin for their small businesses.  

Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said the organization’s stance remains unchanged.

“From my position, this is going to be one more thing that the farmers are going to have to deal with,” he said. “And it’s going to be one more component of running a business that’s going to take away their time from doing their work. It’s going to probably cost more, whether it’s because of hiring attorneys and filing papers and so on and so forth. And I really wonder how much more the union is going to get for the employees,” Carpenter said.

“I believe that the majority of farmers take pretty good care of their workers,” he added. “The workers come back year after year in many, many instances. And if they were treated so bad, why would they want to come back?”

The certification by the State Public Employment Relations Board came Sept. 27.

Barrera said Pindar’s union will set a precedent for other farm workers, not just on Long Island, but throughout New York State. She confirmed that other farm workers have reached out to the union with interest.

“A lot of fear, and what-ifs or unknowns are going to be answered,” she said. “They’re probably gonna lead into some people saying: ‘if they could do it, so can we.”

Mendez is hopeful that other farm workers will follow their example.

“What we’re trying to do is go further than what we’ve already accomplished,” he said. “We want to start talking to other workers, and even friends and family that we know, and let them know the benefits that they have and make this movement bigger.”

Pindar Vineyards did not respond to an email requesting comment before this article was published.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]