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State’s farmworkers fighting to organize

New York Teacher
Image from "After I pick the fruit." Courtesy of Director Nancy Ghertner

Farmworkers harvest cabbage in New York State

After working on the same dairy farm in upstate New York for 12 hours a day, six days a week for three years, Crispin Hernandez was fired for meeting with an organizer. Has the time come for farmworkers to attain the rights they have been long denied?

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in May against the state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo that alleges preventing farmworkers from organizing is a violation of the State Constitution. Hours after the suit was filed, Gov. Cuomo said his administration will not defend it in court.

“I agree with the NYCLU that the exclusion of farmworkers from the labor relations act is inconsistent with our constitutional principles,” the governor said in a statement.

But the battle has grown. Now the New York State Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agricultural lobbying group, wants to defend the ban. The bureau, which represents big agribusiness, filed a motion in State Supreme Court on June 20 seeking intervenor status in the lawsuit, saying the ability of its members to produce food would be harmed if the plaintiffs prevail.

In the state with the highest union membership rate in the nation and in an industry worth $6.36 billion in 2014, New York farmworkers do not have the right to organize without fear of retaliation. They are not guaranteed a full 24-hour day off each week. New York farmworkers do not have the right to overtime pay, unemployment benefits or Workers’ Compensation insurance — all rights that UFT members and other workers take for granted.

While the right of workers to organize is federally protected by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, farmers were excluded then and still are.

“We reject the Farm Bureau’s continued assertions that this racist, holdover policy from Jim Crowe has any place in New York today,” said Erin Beth Harrist, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union and lead counsel on the case.

The Civil Liberties Union suit was filed on behalf of Hernandez and two advocacy groups, the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York. Hernandez was fired after his employer — Marks Farms LLC in Lowville, one of the largest dairies in New York — saw him meeting with co-workers and an organizer, after work hours in a worker’s residence.

The Farm Bureau has justified its motion by saying farms don’t work like other businesses and a strike at the wrong time could wipe out a year’s crop. At issue in the bureau’s attempt to insert itself as a defendant may be whether the bureau speaks for the employers, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of Labor Education Research and a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “So many of the people who hire farmworkers in New York State are not represented by the Farm Bureau,” she said.

Legislation now being considered by the state Senate and Assembly — the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act — would give basic rights to the state’s farmworkers and eliminate some exemptions for agricultural workers granted under federal law.

Things have begun to change in New York State, says Bronfenbrenner, because Democratic lawmakers in Albany have started to ask if there is a constitutional argument for denying farmworkers the rights that other workers are entitled to.

“It’s not there,” she said.

Related Topics: Labor Spotlight
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