State senator fears collective bargaining rights could doom NY agriculture

Posted 19 May 2016 at 12:00 am


On May 10, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state in what was billed as an attempt to protect farm workers.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in Albany, once we look beyond this rosy portrayal – exercising common sense, deploying reason, and researching the facts – an entirely different beast emerges. This destructive, special-interest agenda could very well spell the end of the agriculture industry across Upstate New York.

This latest round of politically-driven theatrics from downstate progressives stems from legislation, the Farmworkers Bill of Rights, they’ve been pushing for years. It would essentially mandate costly overtime and time off provisions and encourage farm workers to unionize.

The proposed legislation would be bad for workers facing layoffs, bad for small family farms operating at the margins, and bad for a regional economy that relies on agriculture to create jobs, spur tourism, and deliver affordable and fresh food to local markets.

What may work in one industry doesn’t easily translate to the agriculture industry. This liberal labor movement is well-funded and well-organized. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that they find so many allies among New York City lawmakers. Many of them, unfortunately, do not understand how agriculture – or Upstate New York for that matter – actually works.

I’ve sat down with dozens of farmers and have visited their properties throughout my 62nd Senate District. This proposed legislation is something our farmers – and many of their workers – vehemently oppose. New York State has a very short growing season with many specific crops that require intensive labor, or specific skill sets.

Farmers face extraordinarily high expenses inherent to the industry such as grain, feed, seed, transportation, and equipment. Further compounding those are the typically worst-in-the-nation costs of doing business with additional expenses, taxes, and regulations. Unemployment insurance, workers compensation, property taxes, and energy taxes put a near fatal burden on our small family farms. And this is before the minimum wage is scheduled to increase in the coming years.

Without the flexibility they currently have when it comes to their workforce, many farmers will definitely see labor costs skyrocket and delays in getting their products to markets and consumers. They could also face potential strikes and lost harvests. Unfortunately, the Governor is ignoring his constitutional and elected duties by stating that he will not defend the state against such an outrageous lawsuit. Once again, he’s circumventing the legislature and ignoring separation of powers that require legislative input prior to massive policy changes.

Our farms aren’t giant corporations. They’re universally small family operations that already face one of the nation’s worst tax and regulatory climates. Working on a farm requires flexibility; it requires commitment; and most of all, it requires heart.

New York State farm workers trudge on and persist in unpredictable weather and under strenuous conditions, because farming is in their blood and it’s in their souls. It’s a shame that the Governor and New York City special interests overlook this. They do a tremendous disservice to the thousands of farmers who make our economy, our communities, and our state so great.

State Sen. Robert Ortt
North Tonawanda

(Ortt represents the 62nd Senate District, which includes all of Orleans and Niagara, and the towns of Sweden and Ogden in Monroe County.)