Wine country used to be the land of limitless prosperity, but times have changed. The U.S. economy has shifted from agriculture to technology, and farming is no longer the lucrative business it once was. This has led to the offshoring of jobs to countries with lower labor costs, and in the wine industry, that means vineyard workers are now doing their jobs overseas. In the past, workers were generally paid good wages and enjoyed lavish benefits. The employees were also unionized, which means they were protected against exploitation. But now, the only workers the wine industry tends to hire are from other countries, where the labor laws are not as protective. As a result, many workers have been forced to work long hours for little pay

The latest issue facing California winemakers has to do with the issue of the labor rights of grape-pickers. The California Labor Commission decided that a Napa vineyard was responsible for underpaying workers, and that it was a violation of the law for the vineyard to not have a union providing workers with benefits like insurance and sick days.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This allowed workers to organize and negotiate competitive wages and working conditions. However, agricultural workers were not counted.

The treatment of farmworkers in the United States is in the shadow of slavery, says Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), the country’s largest farmworker union.

The UFW’s predecessor, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), was founded in 1962 by labor activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The NFWA has advocated for workers in California’s most lucrative agricultural industry, grape growing. After years of boycotts and community organizing, the NFWA won passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which gave farmworkers the right to organize and bargain collectively.

California is the only state that offers similar protections for farmworkers. In all other states, the employer’s agreement with the union is required.

Chavez and Huerta may not be mentioned often in wine circles, but their work is fundamental to the industry. She facilitates conversations about winemakers’ rights and the role of unions in California’s wine regions and beyond.

Are farm workers unions still needed today? Or are there other, more effective ways to ensure the safety of those behind the $68 billion prostitution trade in the United States?

Vineyardto Chateau Ste. Michelle / Photo courtesy of Château Ste. Michelle

Adelaide Mendoza works in the vineyards of Château Ste. Michelle is already 21 years old. She is one of about a hundred union workers who work at Château Ste Agriculture and in the cellars. Michelle.

Ms. Mendoza says her workplace provides stability and her bosses can’t use leverage because at any moment two or three people might show up to replace someone or threaten to fire her because of illness or because they don’t like her.

In the Château Ste. Michelle’s employees and their families are covered by health insurance. Employees also receive overtime and paid holidays. In addition, there are opportunities for professional development and salary increases based on rank: Category 1 – seasonal workers in grape picking, Category 2 – year-round vineyard maintenance, and Category 3 – equipment operators.

Because owners need their business to survive, because, like a restaurant, it’s such a hard business that you start to justify decisions about how you treat the people under you. – Zach Klug, Liten Bufel.

Zach Klug, founder and former winemaker of Liten Bufel in Buffalo, says alliances are especially important for big wineries.

Locally, we’ve had problems with people dying in migrant camps….. and that’s on an apple farm of a few hundred acres, says Klug. Who knows what happens in a 2,000-acre vineyard that requires even more manual labor from people who [don’t work] can’t see.

But even small farmers and independent winemakers find it difficult to balance efficiency with commercial results, which can lead to deteriorating working conditions.

Because owners need their business to survive, because, like a restaurant, it’s such a hard business, you start justifying decisions about how you treat the people in your midst, Klug says.

Unionisation can be a solution to some of these important problems. But, as Klug says, the weight of corporate-focused unionism doesn’t always fit the small agribusinesses in the U.S.

Adrian Cornejo at Hiyu Winery / Photo: Kyle Johnson

Adrian Cornejo believes that the issue of unions is complex. He is co-founder of Nueva Aventura Wine and manager of the 30-acre Hiyu Farm in Oregon, where owners Nate Reedy and China Tresemer consistently pay their employees $15 an hour and offer paid time off, overtime and health insurance. Much more than I can say for other farmers in the area, says Cornejo.

Nate and China go out and work, Cornejo says. Everyone participates, learns and shows. People feel this vibration.

Mr. Cornejo grew up on the grounds of what is now Hiyu Farm, in a house that his father, Manuel Cornejo, had access to as a former vineyard worker. This type of accommodation is not uncommon and can be a great benefit for employees who want to stay with their families.

His father worked on the farm for 30 years. The house was an excuse not to get a raise, Cornejo said. His maximum wage was $11 an hour.

Unions are not always the answer because people and communities can have different motivations. Not everyone wants to stay in one place as an hourly or permanent employee.

The alternative is to pay per volume. The faster you collect, the more you get paid, Cornejo says.

I think the situation of seasonal workers shows that if you are willing to work hard, you can make a lot of money, he says. But you have to work very hard.

Unions are not always the answer because people and communities have different motivations. Not everyone wants to stay in one place as an hourly or permanent employee.

A community approach is essential, he added. The cost of living varies and farm owners must ensure that workers can afford the cost of living in surrounding communities.

In addition to seasonal and annual workers, wine producers often hire interns to supplement the staff in the vineyards. These positions are generally temporary and not unionized.

Hiyu Wine Farm / Photo: Nate Reedy

Kathleen Cherry has worked on crops as an intern and laborer on small farms in different parts of the country. She says the promise of food and meals as part of a salary is not always what it seems. Cheri remembers the first time she looked at a potential home.

We went up north to look at farms, and my mom said it wasn’t livable, Cheri says. There was no running water.

It believes that workers in winegrowing and other agricultural businesses should receive more social support. In the United States, he said, most rural and agricultural towns are populated almost exclusively by white landowners, and the labor force consists mainly of people of color. Language and cultural barriers can be a source of discomfort and conflict.

In the wine industry, internships are often used as an excuse for unpaid work. It welcomes trade unions and other human rights networks. Consumers will have to pay more, she says.

The change in mentality towards farm work is an ongoing process. Organizations such as the United Farm Workers, National Farm Workers Ministry, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste and Napa Valley Grapegrowers are pushing for mandatory overtime pay on farms, as has been the practice for decades in sectors such as construction and manufacturing in several states.

Whether through unions, community organizations or legislation, we must honor the hands that make wine possible, these advocates stress.

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