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Farmworkers follow a mechanical lettuce harvester in central California. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that union recruitment on commercial farmland is a violation of private property rights.

Lawmakers, Courts Show Rising Interest in Farmworker Rights

By Evan Davis | July 9, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

The National Labor Relations Act has served as the bedrock of U.S. collective bargaining law since its passage in 1935. The law guaranteed collective bargaining rights to all workers in the United States, except for public employees and farmworkers. Public workers gained the right to collectively bargain in 1962 following President John F. Kennedy’s signing of executive order 10988. However, farmworker unionization has largely been left up to the states, most of which have refrained from cementing collective bargaining rights for farmworkers in statute. Over the last year, there has been increased interest in farmworkers’ rights, with the introduction of several bills at the state level as well as a major U.S. Supreme Court decision this year. 

Currently, 12 states guarantee collective bargaining rights to farmworkers, with New York becoming one of the latest to do so in 2020. New York’s law, which guarantees workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits, represents some of the most comprehensive collective bargaining legislation for agricultural workers to date.

Currently, 12 states guarantee collective bargaining rights to farmworkers, with New York becoming one of the latest to do so.

This trend continued in 2021 with the passage of SB-087 in Colorado. Guaranteeing farmworkers the right to collectively bargain, the bill also removes the exemption for these workers from state minimum wage laws, regulates overtime pay, mandates meal breaks and rest periods, and requires that agricultural employees receive overwork and health protections. The measure shares similarities with New York’s, signaling another move toward stronger farmworkers’ rights. Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) signed SB-087 into law at the end of the session.

The 2021 session also saw the passage of other measures pertaining to farmworkers’ rights. In Washington, where farmworkers do not have the right to collectively bargain, lawmakers passed SB-5172, granting farmworkers the right to overtime pay. The legislation ends a nearly 60-year exemption for farmworkers and was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee (D) on May 11.

At the federal level, farmworkers’ unions are receiving increased attention as well. This year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging part of California’s landmark, 45-year-old Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first state law to guarantee collective bargaining rights to farmworkers. The dispute hinged on labor organizers’ rights to access farm property for 120 days a year, three hours a day, during non-work periods to meet with workers. The challengers argued that the measure violated private property rights, whereas proponents said it was necessary to ensure farmworkers’ rights were protected. The court sided with the challengers in its June 23 decision, finding union recruitment on farmland to be a violation of private property rights.

It would seem farmworkers’ rights are receiving more attention on the state and federal levels. Whether this is the start of a larger trend has yet to be determined; however, NCSL will continue to monitor the topic and update our findings. 

Evan Davis is an intern in the Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

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