CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Far-reaching new laws that allow farm workers to organize could lead to tense conflicts between farm owners and unions.
The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which eliminates 85-year-old agriculture exemptions under the National Labor Relations Act, takes effect Jan. 1 in New York state.
Workers still can’t strike or intentionally slow down, but farms must pay overtime beyond 60 hours and give employees at least one day of rest per week.
But most important, farm owners must be extremely careful not to discourage or threaten union organizing efforts, including farm visits by union representatives, to avoid charges of unfair labor practices.
“If a union person comes on your property, there can be quite a conflict, a lot of emotion,” said attorney Joshua H. Viau. “This is the powder keg we have to deal with.”
He and fellow ag labor lawyer Charles B. Palmer discussed such issues during a New York Labor Road Show presentation hosted by Cornell University’s Agriculture Workforce Development Council.
Hundreds of farmers attended a series of programs across the state.
The AFL-CIO and United Farm Workers unions and labor nonprofit Farmworker Justice are already active in New York. Palmer said he expects the organizations to approach larger farms first, simply because they have more workers.
“They’re going to want to get some dues-paying members who can then go out and help them organize other farms that are viewed as maybe being behind the times in paying benefits, providing good conditions and worker housing,” he said.
Unions may organize at any farm where 50% plus one of eligible workers approve such action in a card-check election. However, a vote’s outcome must be certified by the state Public Employment Relations Board.
Farm owners may discuss union-related topics with employees, but must avoid TIPS — threats, interrogations, promises, surveillance — at all costs. At times, this can be like walking a tightrope.
For example, farms can’t threaten workers with dismissal. Once organizing efforts have begun, they can’t make promises of greater financial rewards, or monitor organizing meetings overtly or covertly. During job interviews, a farm can’t ask if the prospective employee favors unions.
Any of these things could be perceived as an attempt to undermine unions.
But between now and Jan. 1, farm owners may present facts.
For example, a farmer can say that if the farm gets a union, all workers must pay dues, including those who didn’t vote for it. Some workers might be satisfied with existing conditions and don’t want to pay dues.
Viau advised farmers to keep a log of all such conversations.
“If you say your farm might not be able to survive with a union, is that a threat or concern?” he said. “What you said and what was heard can be two very different things. A lot of what happens in labor disputes is he said, she said.”
Similarly, farmers have property rights as private land owners, which means they can limit access to visitors. But they can’t discriminate by prohibiting a union rep while allowing a feed supply salesman.
Also, union reps must be allowed to meet with employees, especially those who live in farm-provided housing. Of course, some parts of the farm can be restricted for health and safety reasons, and a union rep can’t interfere with time-sensitive activities such as milking.
“Take a look at what you’re doing now,” Viau said. “Review your rules. If you don’t have them, get them. Do it now (before Jan. 1).”
The question for New York state is how many disputes it will have to adjudicate.
“We don’t know if we’re going to get a flood or a trickle,” said John F. Wirenius, chairman of the Public Employment Relations Board. “We’re looking to hire two new judges and may staff up to four more.”
Wirenius said he and the board’s two other members have little first-hand experience with agriculture. So they’ve been seeking input from various industry officials to become more knowledgeable.
“What we do have a lot of background on is labor law and how it applies,” Wirenius said. “What we’re trying to do is have a greater understanding of the agricultural community, of both farm laborers and farmers, so we don’t inadvertently create unintended consequences in our decisions. In applying the law, we have great experience. I’m confident the board can do those duties quite well.”
The goal, Viau and Palmer said, is to be open and communicative with workers without crossing over into illegal conduct.
“If you want to avoid a union, the most powerful thing you can do is create a great work environment and let employees have a voice at work,” said Richard Stup, an ag workforce specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension said. “Let them know their ideas and opinions count and someone is listening to them. Make them feel like they’re a big part of the team, that they’re valued as part of the team.”