ALBANY – 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, filed an appeal late Monday in a case challenging a Jim Crow-era New York law that denies farmworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation. The lawsuit challenges the exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act, which protects the labor rights of virtually all other private sector workers.
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 filed suit with the support of the two worker centers and the NYCLU to ensure that farmworkers across New York have the same rights as all other workers.
“Today is an important day for farmworkers who have been fighting to be treated justly. 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. Mr. Hernandez and the two workers centers contend to the appellate division of the Third Department 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. “It’s a shame the state excludes them from one of our most important protections: the right to collectively bargain without fear.”
Unlike other workers in New York State, farmworkers have long been excluded from the right to organize for better pay, benefits and workplace conditions without fear of retaliation. The State Employment Relations Act, passed in 1937, incorporated the federal New Deal Era-protections for workers into state law. However, in doing so, the state law created a carve-out for farmworkers, the majority of whom were black at the time, that legislators used 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. This lawsuit seeks to eliminate that carve-out and grant farmworkers the same rights as other workers to advocate for themselves in the workplace.
“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. “New York must end this outdated, racist policy from the Jim Crow-era, and treat farmworkers fairly and equally.”
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 Workers 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 the Governor Andrew Cuomo and then Attorney General Eric Schneiderman 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. In January, the State Supreme Court dismissed the case, in a brief opinion that offered little analysis of the core arguments.
“The court ruled that farmworkers do not have a constitutional right to organize, despite the very clear language in the New York Constitution giving all employees the right to organize,” said Erin Beth Harrist, lead counsel and senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Allowing this racist exclusion that continues to leave farmworkers unprotected in New York goes against our values and our laws.”
The New York State Attorney General’s office and the New York Farm Bureau are expected to file briefs regarding the appeal in the coming weeks.