The Albany County Supreme Court today dismissed a challenge to a Jim Crow-era state 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, who are represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, plan to appeal the decision.
Under the New York Constitution, all workers have a right to organize and collectively bargain. Yet a more than 80-year-old law known as the Employment Relations Act includes a carve-out from these protections for farmworkers. The law reflects the segregationist politics of the Depression Era during which it was passed, when farmworkers were predominantly black.
“We will not rest until farmworkers are free to organize and have a voice in their working conditions,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Today’s decision will not deter us from making sure that farmworkers enjoy the same basic rights as every other hardworking New Yorker.”
Plaintiff Crispin Hernandez was fired from one of New York’s largest dairies, Marks Farms LLC in Lowville, after his employer saw him meeting with coworkers and an organizer to discuss workplace conditions. The meeting took place after work hours and in a worker’s personal residence. Hernandez had been working 12-hour shifts six days a week at Mark’s Farms since he was a teenager, but he lost both his job and his home.
When the plaintiffs filed suit in May of 2016, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman publicly agreed that the excluding farmworkers from the right to organize conflicts with the state constitution. Both declined to defend the lawsuit in court. In response, the New York Farm Bureau requested that the court allow it to intervene to defend the law as a party in the case. The plaintiffs and the NYCLU did not object to the Farm Bureau’s motion to intervene, allowing the matter to be resolved in the state courts.
“I am disappointed with today’s decision, but we will continue fighting for a victory,” said plaintiff Crispin Hernandez. “With the help of God and all of our supporters, we will change the conditions that we deal with as farmworkers and we will keep pushing to be treated like human beings.”
“It’s a shame that the judge has decided to continue the Jim Crow era exclusion of Farmworkers from the protected right to organize,” said Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer at the Workers' Center of Central New York, a plaintiff in the case. “Today’s decision is a slap in the face for workers like Crispin Hernandez who have to live under threat and intimidation from employers and law enforcement.”
Farming is a multi-billion-dollar industry in New York, yet farmworkers often earn wages well below the poverty level. Many live in overcrowded labor camps with sweatshop-like conditions, contending with infestations of rats, cockroaches and bed bugs, and no regular access to transportation. Farmworkers are excluded from workplace protections afforded to nearly all other workers, including a day of rest, overtime pay, disability insurance and the right to organize without retaliation.
Farmworkers operate dangerous machinery at grueling rates and use toxic chemicals, often without enough training. Their fatality rate is 20 times that of the average worker in New York. Some report working 95 hours a week. Most are racial minorities who do not speak English, and as many as 75 percent are undocumented, a fact supervisors use to intimidate them into silence.
"While we are disappointed with Judge McNally’s ruling today, we are steadfast in our resolve to continue our fight through the courts,” said Carly Fox, senior worker Rights Advocate at the Worker Justice Center of New York, a plaintiff in the case. “We know that, ultimately, we stand on the side of justice and we won't stop until we win, simply because the workers we serve are depending on it. When we are out in the field, hearing from farmworkers about the dangerous conditions on farms, depressed wages, grueling hours and unsanitary and sub-standard employer-provided housing, we know that the best resource workers have is their unity. The Worker Justice Center of New York will fight for equality for farmworkers until it is won."
“Because of an outdated law, the people we rely on for the food in our kitchens are condemned to poverty, abuse and even death,” said NYCLU senior staff attorney and lead counsel on the case Erin Beth Harrist. “We will appeal this ruling and continue to fight this law, which violates our constitution and our state’s commitment to human rights.”
In addition to Harrist, NYCLU staff on the case include Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg, associate legal director Christopher Dunn, staff attorney Jordan Wells, staff attorney Aadhithi Padmanabhan, and paralegal Andrea Barrientos.