ALBANY, N.Y. ‒ Advocates for farmworkers were in court today in Albany to challenge a Jim Crow-era New York law that denies farmworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation. Plaintiffs Crispin Hernandez, the Workers’ Center of Central New York, and the Worker Justice Center of New York, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, are seeking to end the exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act, which protects the labor rights of virtually all other private sector workers. At the hearing, NYCLU senior staff attorney Erin Beth Harrist urged the court to not give a constitutional stamp of approval to a discriminatory law.
Crispin Hernandez was fired from one of New York’s largest dairies, Marks Farms LLC in Lowville, after his employer saw him meeting with co-workers and an organizer to discuss workplace conditions, even though it was after work hours and in a worker’s home. Hernandez, who had been working 12-hour shifts for six days a week at Mark’s Farms since he was a teenager, lost his job and his home. He, along with the two worker centers, filed suit to ensure that farmworkers across New York have the same rights as all other workers.
“Without farmworkers and our labor, New Yorkers wouldn’t have fruits or vegetables to put on their dinner table,” said Mr. Hernandez. “We deserve to be treated like human beings, without fear of retaliation.”
In January, the Albany County Supreme Court granted a motion to dismiss the case in a brief opinion. Mr. Hernandez and the two workers centers appealed the case, arguing that the exclusion of farmworkers violates the rights to organize, equal protection and due process under the New York Constitution.
“Farmworkers make essential contributions to New York State and to all of our lives. Their labor produces the food, nutrition, and money that sustain our economy and our communities,” said Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York. “Farmworkers should have the same rights to advocate for themselves as all other workers.”
When the State Employment Relations Act was passed in 1937 to incorporate the federal New Deal Era-protections for workers into New York law, lawmakers carried over a carve-out excluding farmworkers and domestic workers from worker protections. The federal protections had excluded farmworkers, the majority of whom were black at the time, as a compromise to get the votes of segregationist members of Congress. This exclusion now applies to farmworkers in New York today, who are, for the most part, immigrant workers.
Legislation that would grant farmworkers the same rights as almost all other hourly workers in New York, like collective bargaining, overtime pay and a day of rest, has been introduced and passed in the state assembly many times, but never in the state senate. Advocates are hopeful that with the new make-up of the state senate, New York will follow the lead of other progressive states like California and correct this eighty year old injustice. Even though farming in New York is a multi-billion dollar industry, farmworkers often earn wages well below the poverty level, and many live in overcrowded labor camps and toil under sweatshop-like conditions. The combination of poverty, isolation, and lack of permanent legal status and language access makes farmworkers among the most exploited groups in the American labor force.
“There is simply no justification for depriving farmworkers of the basic right to organize,” said Carly Fox, an advocate with the Worker Justice Center of New York. “For many decades, each time farmworkers and their allies have advocated for much-needed changes to laws governing their labor rights, the Farm Bureau has used its power and influence to lobby New York lawmakers to preserve the status quo and leave farmworkers in a position of vulnerability. Justice is clearly on the side of the farmworkers, and we will keep fighting until we win full equal rights.”
When the plaintiffs initially filed suit in May of 2016, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Attorney General publicly agreed that excluding farmworkers from the right to organize conflicts with the state constitution. Both declined to defend the lawsuit in court. However, the New York Farm Bureau requested that the court allow it to intervene to defend the law as a party in the case. The New York State Attorney General’s office filed a brief in support of the position that the exclusion is unconstitutional.
“Farmworkers whom we depend on to put food on our tables deserve to be treated humanely and with dignity like any other hardworking New Yorker,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Governor Cuomo has rightly decided not to defend this exclusionary law in court, and he now has an opportunity to right this wrong with a comprehensive legislative solution to ensure that farmworkers are treated fairly and equally.”
A decision by the appellate court is expected in the coming months.
“The language of the New York Constitution is very clear: all employees have the right to organize,” said Erin Beth Harrist, lead counsel and senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “The ongoing exclusion of farmworkers from this constitutional right in New York goes against our values and our laws.”