January 2, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.
Sometimes things come full circle. In 1966, my father, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, made the first of two visits to Delano, Calif., becoming the only national political figure to unequivocally embrace striking Filipino and Latino grape pickers and their leader, Cesar Chavez.
Now, his union, the United Farm Workers, is successfully organizing farm workers in New York State. In a triumph for justice, apple and vegetable workers at five Upstate and Hudson Valley companies voted to be represented by the UFW. Yet, that progress is threatened by intimidation and cynical industry legal maneuvers attempting to deny them the union contract benefits for which they voted.
After his election to the U.S. Senate from New York and his trip to California backing vineyard workers, my father witnessed farm labor conditions in his own state. At one Upstate farm he was confronted by a shotgun-wielding grower who pointed the weapon at him and ordered him to leave.
My family and I repeatedly stood with Cesar and his cause. During visits to California, I spoke about how desperately field workers outside California need a movement like the UFW. Five decades later, in 2019 New York finally passed a law letting farm workers vote in a union, be protected from retaliation, and use mediation and binding arbitration if employers won’t bargain.
The UFW, in a drive mostly by female organizers, helped New York farm workers organize and vote for the union at four apple companies — Wafler Farms, Cahoon Farms, Porpiglia Farms, and A&J Kirby — and one vegetable ranch, Lynn-Ette Farms. The state Public Employment Relations Board, which enforces New York’s law, ordered all five farms into mediation for UFW contracts.
Tragically, instead of negotiating union contracts, these growers sternly resist worker efforts to end abusive practices and improve their lives. Sadly, not much has changed since Daddy was threatened by that New York grower in the 1960s.
According to formal charges filed by the UFW, on or about Aug. 21 a union meeting inside farm workers’ homes was forcibly broken up by owners of Porpiglia Farms, a major apple producer where workers voted for the union. Owners Anthony and Joseph Porpiglia with two other white men forced their way into the Mexican workers’ living spaces without permission.
The UFW charges the Porpiglia brothers and their colleagues shouted at and physically intimidated the lone female union organizer, and aggressively interrogated workers who invited her into their home. Many fled or hid in their rooms. Concerned for her physical safety and threatened with arrest — in violation of New York law — she felt forced to leave.
Other formal charges filed by the UFW state that on Sept. 5, laborers at Lynn-Ette Farms who also voted for the union, had their meeting with a solitary UFW organizer at an outdoor picnic table interrupted when owner Darren Roberts pulled up in his pick-up truck. He surveilled the meeting, approached the UFW organizer, demanded she leave, and threatened to have her arrested. When she responded to the owner in Spanish so workers could understand, Roberts angrily demanded the organizer speak to him in English.
Wafler Farms owner Paul Wafler directed a vile, profanity-laced rant at his workers caught on video in September. Wafler workers have also alleged wage theft.
H-2A temporary foreign guest workers make up much of New York’s farm labor work force, including the Mexican and Jamaican workers at the companies where workers selected the UFW. Wafler’s arguments to exclude H-2A workers from union contract talks were soundly rejected in a 29-page ruling on May 11 by a top PERB official. Similar claims by other growers were also turned down.
So, in October all five growers and the vegetable growers’ association filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state farm labor law, asserting H-2A immigrant farm workers can’t join a union. It is reminiscent of the racist exclusion of farm workers from federal New Deal labor protections eight decades ago. Southern segregationist lawmakers demanded it because in the South farm workers were largely African-American. The racist exclusion persists today nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Labor states that H-2A workers are not excluded from joining unions. UFW contracts protect H-2A workers in California.
The stakes are high. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar reports more H-2A workers than ever came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2022. They are a growing segment of U.S. farm workers.
No matter how the courts rule, farm workers are suffering real harm. All five companies halted negotiations pending their lawsuit. These growers would rather fight the law than sit down with their workers as equals and bargain fair union contracts. These workers deserve the union they want.
Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.