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Vt. lawmakers consider allowing agricultural, domestic workers to collectively bargain

A photo of dairy cows inside a blue barn, with a black dog visible outside the barn.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public File
Dairy farmworker advocates are among those supporting legislation that would allow agricultural and domestic workers to unionize in Vermont.

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would give agricultural and domestic workers the right to unionize.

Currently under state law, neither type of worker has a right to collectively bargain. This mirrors the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a federal law passed in 1935.

Scholars say the motivations for excluding agricultural and domestic workers from the NLRA were racist, because those workers tended to be Black people, particularly Black women.

But this week, the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs heard testimony on S. 102, which would remove those worker group exclusions.

Will Lambek with the farmworker advocacy organization Migrant Justice testified in favor of the bill.

“If farmworkers were granted the right to organize and collectively bargain under Vermont state law, we hope that many of them would avail themselves of that right," Lambek said Thursday.

Migrant Justice has reported farmworkers working 12-plus hours without a break to eat, experiencing violence from their bosses and living in crowded, unsanitary on-farm housing.

Legislative counsel Damien Leonard noted the undocumented status of many farmworkers may present a challenge to exercising the right to unionize.

Leonard also pointed out that theState Labor Relations Actalso only applies to employers with five or more employees, which is often not the case for people employed in private homes as domestic workers.

"You're more likely to see an effect here with the agricultural labor addition," Leonard said.

That includes seasonal workers like apple pickers from Jamaica who come here on the H-2A visa program. Leonard said they could potentially unionize if they're the same group of people coming year after year.

More from Vermont Public: Vt.’s housing health & safety system didn’t protect farmworkers, so they created their own program

Vermont Public reached out to Dairy Farmers of America, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.

DFA and NOFA-Vermont didn't immediately respond, and the agriculture agency said it didn't yet have a position on the issue.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs voted S.102 out of committee on Friday.

The version of the bill the committee approved, however, eliminated a provision for "good cause" termination for those workers.

Good cause termination creates a higher bar for employers to fire their employees. This includes progressive discipline, i.e. employers giving employees a chance to change their behavior.

And Lambek with Migrant Justice asked lawmakers to come back to this issue.

He said the Milk With Dignity program,through which corporations pay farms to follow labor and housing standards, requires good cause termination.

“On farms where … this has been implemented, we see clearer communication between workers and employers — workers are more likely to communicate when for example, a cow falls during their shift, or machinery isn't working, because they aren't concerned that they could be held responsible unjustly," Lambek said. "And this hasn't limited farms' ability to terminate employees when they do have good cause. Workers are still fired.”

Currently about 20% of Vermont’s dairy industry falls under Milk With Dignity. Ben & Jerry's is the first and only corporation to sign onto the program, back in 2017.

Senators took the good cause portion of the bill out due to time constraints, but said there might be space to take up this issue when the bill passes over to the House chamber.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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