Farm workers’ union protests Pindar Vineyards as contract negotiations stall
New York’s first farm-worker union has faced roadblocks negotiating a contract at Pindar Vineyards on Long Island.
In late 2021, a union was certified by the state to represent about its dozen farm workers. But a year later, Noemi Barrera, an organizer with Local 338, said they are at an impasse. “They're not willing to come to the table, and negotiate a fair contract for the worker,” she said.
At least 40 union members and their supporters joined Barrera to protest outside of Pindar Vineyards’s outlet store in Port Jefferson over the weekend to pressure winery owners to negotiate a contract.
"Unfortunately, they're not negotiating in good faith,” said Yomaira Franqui, lead organizer for Local 338. “And it's not our negotiation. It's the workers' negotiation. So our fight is their fight.”
None of the farm workers joined the picket line on the busy main street. Under a 2020 state law, New York farm workers are allowed to collectively negotiate for higher wages and benefits, and improve access to overtime. Pindar provides no health insurance to its workers, according to the union.
The law also entitled them to a day of rest each week. This week, the farm workers used up their day off during the week due to heavy rains.
Franqui said the farmworkers don’t want people to disrupt their employer with boycotts, but to give them a seat at the table.
Alethea Damianos Conroy, a managing member and winery owner, directed questions to her lawyer, but called the protestors “untruthful.” If the parties fail to negotiate, a third party could be assigned to mediate.
“We're at what we call an impasse,” Barrera said.
Farmworkers picketed outside the winery on Long Island's North Fork in October and earlier this month, but shifted to the winery’s outlet stores to draw attention during less popular months at the vineyard.
“We're not trying to boycott them at all,” Barrera said. “In fact, we're not even telling people not to shop or to even visit the vineyards. At the end of the day, we want to keep them in business because that means that our workers will also have a job.”
The tasting room closed during the demonstration.
The dozen farm workers are predominantly from Central America. They often work six or seven days a week. Through a union translator, they said their bodies are tired and need rest. Local 338 has requested a contract that contains workers compensation and health coverage, and more sick times and holidays off.
For many years, farm workers had limited protections. They didn't have an overtime threshold, until a law brought in a 60-hour threshold to obtain extra pay for additional work. After months of testimony to the state Farm Laborers Wage Board, including from Local 338 and Pindar farm workers, the threshold was reduced to 40-hours within the next couple of years.
However, bringing agriculture in line with the labor standards in other industries remains contentious statewide. Farm owners testified the additional costs will close small operations.
“Most farms are price takers rather than price setters. And many of the farms work on very thin margins,” said Robert Carpenter, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Juan Micieli-Martinez, the farm bureau’s newly elected president, said in a statement, “Ultimately farmers respect employees' rights to consider unionization, but do not see it as necessarily beneficial to agriculture which is [sic] comprised of highly price sensitive commodities.”
Local 338 claims vineyard owners are working together to control and set wages. They belong to the Long Island Wine Council, which partners with the state and regional farm bureaus.
“I think that there's probably pressure on Pindar by the wider farming industry, and by New York Farm Bureau, to not negotiate, because that would be the first negotiated union contract in New York State. And once the workers see that this is possible, then they will know in other farms, other vineyards, that they too, can be treated with dignity, and respect,” Richard Witt, executive director of Rural & Migrant Ministry, an organization that has been advocating for farm workers for over 40 years. They have a worker center in Riverhead.
Carpenter said this is uncharted territory for New York agriculture, but the farm bureau and its members “support what’s in the law.”
“There may be demands that the union is asking that may be very uncomfortable for the business and in a bad state. Likewise, from the business side, maybe there were expectations from the union that are not being met,” Carpenter said. “So, it's really an individual case by case basis, and what the union negotiates with one farm may be different than what they negotiate on another farm.”
“It's not going to be a one-size-fits-all model. Each farm, each union are going to be different.”
María del Mar Piedrabuena with Tu Prensa Local contributed reporting.