For most of us, Labor Day is a day of well-earned leisure, a time to celebrate the contributions of workers. But not everyone gets to rest on this day. Because the holiday arrives during the harvest season, many Oregon workers will be toiling in the fields to keep food flowing to our tables.
The sacrifice of a holiday is but one way in which agricultural workers face challenges that others don’t. More consequential is the fact that federal law denies farmworkers, as well as domestic workers, the right to organize — a right it grants to most other workers. While it would be ideal if Congress rectified this injustice, Oregon has the power to ensure that all workers in our state enjoy the right to bargain collectively.
The National Labor Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1935, established the right of private-sector workers to organize, a right rooted in workers’ freedom of association. While the law is far from perfect, it nevertheless gives workers a measure of power with respect to the conditions of their work.
The act, however, came into being at a time when Southern states lived by Jim Crow laws — a system of racial segregation and subordination. Opposed to empowering the Black workers who labored in the fields and homes of white families, Southern lawmakers pushed to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the protections of the labor act. Sadly, the Roosevelt administration acceded to this devil’s bargain to garner Southern votes.
The racially-motivated exclusion remains in place to this day, continuing to disadvantage workers of color. Nationally, 83% of farmworkers identify as Latino, while in Oregon the figure is higher at 92%. Similarly, domestic workers are disproportionately Black and Latino women, both nationally and in Oregon.
For Oregon’s roughly 116,000 agricultural and domestic workers, the denial of the right to organize comes at a cost. The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of workers to form a union, and unions play an essential role in improving pay and working conditions. Oregon’s lowest-paid workers represented by a union enjoy wages that are 21% higher than the lowest-paid non-union workers..
The effects of excluding farmworkers and domestic workers from organizing protections are born out in the paychecks of these workers. Their wages are among the lowest in the state. For instance, in 2022, the median wage for farmworkers in Oregon was $15 per hour. That was lower than the median occupational wage of more than 90% of all other workers.
Rather than wait for Congress to end the inequities in the labor act, Oregon could extend the same protections contained in the act to presently excluded workers. It would not be the first time a state has done so. Five decades ago, California granted farmworkers the right to organize.
Remedying the exclusion would bolster the economy. Research shows that when union density is high in an industry, wages and benefits tend to improve for all workers in the sector, even for those not in a union. Unionization also helps reduce income inequality, which in turn helps the economy grow and remain strong.
It’s worth noting that Oregon state law seemingly grants all workers the right to organize, but for Oregon workers excluded under the labor act, this right does not mean that their employer must recognize their union or negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. So, for Oregon’s farmworkers, the right to organize has little practical meaning because workers lack the right to assert their interests through bargaining.
It’s also important to point out that Oregon has recognized the right of homecare workers to bargain collectively, but not their right to strike. Other domestic workers, however, still lack the right to bargain collectively.
All workers deserve to live in dignity. All workers deserve the right to join together to bargain for better wages and working conditions. This Labor Day, let’s commit to making Oregon a state that extends that right to all workers.