Farmworkers and Unionization

Written by:

Elizabeth Melton

5 min read

With the current political and economic climate, it’s no surprise that Amazon and Starbucks workers want to unionize. Most aren’t getting paid what they’re worth, work under dangerous conditions, and don’t get enough paid time off.

By joining forces, they can pressure their employer to change. And it’s absolutely their right to do so. According to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), almost all workers can unionize under the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

Yet with all the media attention devoted to these union formations, you’ll notice one group is consistently left out: farm workers.

That’s because farm workers were never a part of the NLRA. Without the ability to form a union, they’ve been stuck in a never-ending, uphill struggle.

So in this post, we’ll discuss what unionization is, why farm workers were excluded from the NLRA, and how much unions could help farm workers in the future.

What is Unionization?

Unionization is the practice of assembling a company’s employees to form a labor union. Forming a union is important because it’s much harder to ignore the wishes of hundreds or thousands of employees than just a few. When huge portions of a workforce threaten to go on strike or quit, employers listen.

Unions use their size and power to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. A union serves as a liaison between employees and their employer, the government, or other trade associations. And as we discussed earlier, nearly all US workers have the right to safely unionize under the Constitution and federal law. The NLRA specifically disallows supervisors from bribing or spying on employees who are planning to unionize or have already unionized, and workers cannot be fired or penalized in any way for participating in a union.

As you can imagine, employers aren’t typically pro-union. They often discourage employees from unionizing and lobby governmental figures to maintain control over their employees. Unions also have the potential to cause social unrest, so the United States (and other countries) have enacted laws that decrease unions’ influence.

What’s Stopping Farm Workers From Unionizing?

Farm workers are among some of the most important workers in our nation, and yet they aren’t afforded the same unionization protections. Since they are excluded from the NLRA, farm workers can be fired for supporting, joining, or organizing labor unions. To make matters worse, farm workers are supposedly guaranteed decent working conditions through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), but they are not experiencing them in practice.

Farm workers are exposed to cleaning chemicals, intense heat, pesticides, and a high risk of injury. In addition, farm workers in most states aren’t eligible for workers’ compensation, disability insurance, or health insurance. Farm workers, who often work overtime, are excluded from overtime compensation protection provided by the FLSA. They are often highly dependent on their employer for housing and visa requirements, so fear that employer retaliation could lead to deportation. And yet, FLSA exempts farms with fewer than seven workers in a calendar quarter from all FLSA requirements.

All of these issues combined with the fact that farm workers are seasonal workers make it extremely difficult to maintain contact, let alone convince each other to organize a unified front.

How Unionization Would Help Farm Workers

Despite the challenges facing the farm worker community, there has been some unionization, and it has proved its necessity.

To combat farm worker injustices, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong formed United Farm Workers, the nation’s first enduring and largest farm workers’ union. With the union’s support, farm workers in California, Oregon, and Washington now receive overtime pay, even at non-union ranches. The UFW also helped establish the first heat death and illness prevention standards for agricultural workers and recently helped pass a reform bill for immigrant workers in the US House of Representatives.

But today, even a union as powerful as UFW struggles to push the envelope. In early 2022, labor advocates and the UFW pushed to institute an organizing system to make it far easier for workers to organize into unions. Ultimately, Governor Newsom returned this bill without signature, noting “various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.” While relevant stakeholders redevelop policies to address the issue, farm workers are still forced to vote for unionization under management supervision一an obvious conflict of interest.

While UFW has made incredible strides towards increasing farm workers’ rights in California, Washington, and Oregon, broader unionization could give farm workers:

  • Access to legal representation
  • Wages more commensurate with the daily risk they endure and their expertise
  • Overtime pay (outside of CA, WA, and OR)
  • Greater job security
  • An opportunity to qualify for benefits
  • Grievance procedures to file rights violations complaints
  • More workplace inspections to check for safety and sanitation standards
  • Funding from the government
  • Emergency relief resources
  • Immigration assistance programs
  • A voice to speak out about farm worker injustices
  • Respect and dignity in the workplace

Of course, this is just a shortlist of what farm workers could expect. But the blockers to achieving that kind of success are virtually insurmountable without the help of new legislation.

Helping Farm Workers Get Access to What They Need

Though the world has dramatically changed over the last century, farm workers have experienced little to no change in their wages, job security, benefits, or working conditions. Being left out of the NLRA and having very little protection from FLSA, it’s no surprise that farm workers have one of the lowest unionization rates of any sector. Without the legal support to carry those organizations, many farm workers are hesitant to join. And in recent years, the risks of farm worker deportation, human trafficking, and abuse have only gotten worse.

Entidad, a firm focused on using Web3 technologies to help farm workers, is hoping to flip that paradigm. By developing new ways of connecting farm workers to advocacy groups and each other, Entidad is opening the doors to a new age of farm work. In the future, farm workers will be able to request emergency relief assistance, apply for immigration, and even apply for jobs at farms committed to their employees’ health and safety.

Want to learn more about how you can help? Check out Entidad’s website or follow them on Medium.

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Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization