ALBANY - A state appellate court today declared unconstitutional a Jim Crow-era exclusion in state law that denies farmworkers the right to organize and collectively bargain. 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, originally challenged the exclusion of farmworkers from basic labor protections in 2016.
“This is a victory for farmworkers, as we have finally had our day in court,” said Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from his job as a dairy worker in Lowville, NY in 2015 after his boss saw him meeting after work with co-workers and human rights organizers to discuss workplace conditions. “All workers deserve to have a voice and be heard at their place of work, and farmworkers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Under the New York Constitution, all workers have a right to organize and collectively bargain. Yet since the 1930s, farmworkers have been excluded from those basic workers’ rights by a carve out in the State Employment Relations Act. This carve out is a carryover from a New Deal legislative compromise with segregationist Congressmen to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers, who were predominantly Black at the time.
“Today, the court recognized that farmworkers are entitled to the same rights as all other workers in New York state,” said Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York. “Farmworkers make essential contributions to New York and to all of our lives. Their labor produces the food, nutrition, and money that sustain our economy and our communities.
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, and in January 2018, a state court granted their motion to dismiss the case. The New York State Attorney General’s office jointed the plaintiffs in appealing to the Third Department, arguing that the exclusion of farmworkers from collective bargaining is unconstitutional. The Third Department Appellate Division heard arguments on the case in February 2019.
“Today’s ruling shows that justice is clearly on the side of farmworkers,” said Andrea Callan, managing director of 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. We expect the bureau will appeal and we will keep fighting until we win full equal rights.”
Alongside today’s ruling, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would grant farmworkers the same rights as almost all other hourly workers in New York in addition to collective bargaining. These include overtime pay and a day of rest. Though such legislation has passed the state assembly in prior years, it now has a majority of sponsors in the state senate for the first time.
“The court’s ruling today was unequivocal that denying farmworkers basic labor rights is flat-out unconstitutional, and farmworkers, like other workers, have the right to organize,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker.”
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.
“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 exclusion of farmworkers from this constitutional right in New York is against our values and our laws.”