Cuomo supports lawsuit to allow collective bargaining for farmworkers

Staff Reports Posted 10 May 2016 at 12:00 am

The governor was named in a lawsuit to allow farmworkers the right to organize, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today he won’t fight the lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The group said farmworkers are excluded from the critical protection of the right to organize without fear of retaliation under New York state’s labor law, a violation of the state constitution.

The New York Civil Liberties Union named New York state and Cuomo today in the lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court. It is the first lawsuit that demands that farmworkers receive the same basic protections from the state that virtually every other worker receives.

“It’s a shame for New York that in 2016, a holdover, racist policy from the Jim Crow era prevents farmworkers from organizing to improve their brutal work conditions,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Enough is enough. Farmworkers who we depend on to put food on our tables deserve no less dignity and humanity than any other hardworking New Yorker.”

Cuomo issued a statement that he supports the lawsuit.

“Because of a flaw in the state labor relations act, farmworkers are not afforded the right to organize without fear of retaliation – which is unacceptable, and appears to violate the New York State Constitution,” Cuomo said. “I agree with the NYCLU that the exclusion of farmworkers from the labor relations act is inconsistent with our constitutional principles, and my administration will not be defending the act in court. We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry. This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected.”

The NYCLU’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who 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 personal residence, NYCLU said.

The NYCLU’s lawsuit was also filed on behalf of the Workers’ Center of Central New York, a group that organizes and advocates for low-wage workers, and the Worker Justice Center of New York, an organization that seeks justice for farmworkers through advocacy and legal representation. Both groups have been unable to provide critical supports to farmworkers because they are unconstitutionally excluded from protections for organizing.

Farming in New York is a multi-billion dollar industry, with sales of $6.36 billion in 2014. The state’s approximately 60,000 farmworkers are critical to making New York a national leader in farm produce and the fourth largest dairy producer in the country.

New York Farm Bureau issued this statement about the lawsuit:

“New York Farm Bureau is unable to comment on specifics of the NYCLU lawsuit until we have had a chance to review the case. However, public allegations being made in the organization’s announcement greatly misrepresent dairy farms, and working conditions of all farm employees, in New York. In addition, the allegations contradict and ignore the valued relationships that farmers across the state have with their employees.

“The farm industry has long been pushing for comprehensive immigration reform that will have many positive benefits for the employees and the industry as a whole. However, the right to organize is a labor union tactic that may work in a factory setting, but not on a farm where the planting and harvesting of crops and the milking of cows are extremely time sensitive and weather-dependent. For a farm to lose employees to an untimely walk-off of the job could jeopardize a season’s crop and place livestock health at risk.”

State Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, also issued a statement against the lawsuit, saying it “is nothing more than politically-driven theater from New York City radicals.”

Ortt said agriculture is critical to the state’s economy.

“Anyone who knows anything about farming, or about New York State north of the Bronx or East of Queens, knows how vital agriculture is to our economy and to our communities,” Ortt said. “And, they know a measure such as this would be the final nail in the coffin for many of our small family farms and result in dramatic price increases for nearly all of our foods. Efforts to apply certain labor practices from other industries to the agriculture industry ignores the realities facing our farms. We have a very short growing season in New York with many specific crops that demand intensive labor or specific skill sets. Our farms aren’t giant corporations, they’re universally small family operations that require flexibility. They already face one of the nation’s worst tax and regulatory climates and yet they persist because farming is in their blood and it’s in their hearts. It’d be a shame if our Governor and our state turned our backs on them to appease the swelling influence of liberal New York City interest groups.”

The NYCLU said farmworkers are excluded from the workplace protections afforded to nearly all other workers, including a day of rest, overtime pay, disability insurance and the right to organize without retaliation.

“Because of an 80-year-old outdated law, poverty, fatalities and legally-sanctioned discrimination are a way of life for tens of thousands of people working in New York,” said Erin Beth Harrist, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel on the case. “New York must reject the farmworker exclusion for violating our constitution, progressive values and commitment to human rights.”

The group said 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.