Wide gulf of reaction to recent landmark lawsuit, legislation around agriculture workers
Editor’s note: Interviews for this article have been translated from Spanish.
NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the divisive Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act last week, granting farm laborers legal protections consistent with other sectors of the American labor force, and while upstate labor organizers are calling it a “historic day,” they say more could be done.
The bill — which gives farm laborers the right to organize and collectively bargain — passed both the Assembly and the Senate earlier next year and will go into effect next year. The law guarantees farm workers collective bargaining rights, one mandated weekly day of rest, eight-hour work day limits and eligiblity for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.
The legislation, introduced by Queens Democrats, traces its origins back to the New York Supreme Court in Albany County, where farmworker Crispín Hernández decided to sue the state of New York in 2016.
Hernández claimed he was denied a day off, overtime pay and the chance to collectively bargain by the dairy farm that employed him in Lewis County and challenged an 80-year-old law granting those rights to New York employees — but excluding farmworkers.
In 2018, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, noting the law was not discriminatory, which prompted Hernández to file an appeal to the appellate division later that year. That appeal eventually served as the foundation for the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.
“It is a historic day for all of us, especially all farm laborers and all community organizations that have worked toward this goal as a collective,” Hernández told The Palladium-Times. “This is a law for all farm laborers.”
Hernández, 24, and of Mixtec origin, hails from southern Mexico and immigrated to the United States seven years ago hoping it would help him take better care of his family back home.
“What we want to promote is that thanks to the work of many farm laborers, we are able to produce food for daily consumption, not only in New York state, but also worldwide,” he said, highlighting the importance of farm labor. “These workers work to feed families across the globe. We just want everyone to know that without our labor, there would be a shortage of food.”
While some call the bill a boon for farm laborers, Oswego County’s lawmakers have joined a chorus of upstate officials decrying the bill as having the potential to devastate family farms.
“I am truly disappointed to see Gov. Cuomo sign the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act into law,” Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-Lyons, said. “While I understand the desire to help farmers and their employees, this is unfortunately not the best way to do so. Ultimately, I foresee this act hurting New York’s economy, farmers and their employees in a number of ways. It limits the amount of time an employee can work, meaning less money for them to take home to their families. And it means less work being done, so less product is put out meaning less money for farming families.”
Pro-business groups such as Unshackle Upstate say the bill is a sign “New York is not open for business.”
Hernández responded to that particular criticism, saying it seems “rather racist.”
“Those are lies,” he said. “We want that perception to change. Manual labor for us is so important and business groups and corporations are not used to this, all they know is how to not recognize our labor and exploit farm workers. This has been going on for decades and we want this to change.”
Because of the nature of agriculture work, Hernández says more needs to be done — and urgently — to protect workers.
“We do very heavy duty and very intense work in the workplace,” he said. “Sometimes they don't even give us the proper training or equipment, we work with hazardous chemicals and we want companies to recognize we are part of the food chain. We are at the bottom of it and without our labor, the companies and processing plants would be short on vegetables, dairy products and fruits. We want companies and cooperatives to recognize us, without our work they are nothing.”
Activists have been pushing for reforms to the state’s farm labor protections for decades but with Democrats taking control of the state Senate majority in January, the legislation finally had enough support to make it to a vote.
State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee until Republicans lost control of the chamber. In a statement following the bill signing, Ritchie said upstate farmers “simply cannot afford” the reforms.
“In the past five years, our state has lost 2,000 farms,” Ritchie said. “This new law — which places the fate of our agriculture industry into the hands of a newly unelected wage board with zero accountability — will saddle farmers with another $300 million in costs.”
The Farmworker Fair Labor Practice Act is a “gut-punch to the future of farming,” according to Ritchie.
“Farming is a way of life in the region I represent, and our family farms are responsible for providing fresh food to people in every corner of our state. This new law puts farmers and the industry as a whole in jeopardy,” she said.
Farmworkers didn’t get everything they wanted. Compromises and amendments to the act came after farmers and farm laborers gathered in Albany to vocalize their concerns to lawmakers that the new regulations would impose unrealistic standards. Among other changes, the final version of the bill contains a no-strike clause to prevent worker shortages during critical growing periods.
Hernández said while the no-strike clause is “very unfair,” he sees it as an area of opportunity for farmers and labor organizers to continue lobbying against in the near future.
Currently a labor organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York in Syracuse, Hernández said he is very happy to have helped kickstart a fight for farmworker’s rights in the state.
“What's next for us is to keep working as nonprofits and we are inviting all of the people who support us to reach our goal,” he said. “Our goal is to enforce this as a law in the workplace and hold farmers and cooperatives accountable. We want to be heard, we want farmers to listen to us and respect us.”
Rebecca Fuentes, the lead organizer at the Syracuse-based non-profit said the group is not waiting until the law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
“We are organizing already, and we are not waiting until this law goes into effect,” she said, noting that the Worker’s Center is currently learning from heavyweight worker’s unions such as The Farm Worker Labor Organizing Committee and the Service Employees International Union on how to effectively organize. “The Worker’s Center is a membership based organization so workers become members, and while we don't have the power of a collective bargaining agreement with employers we have recovered thousands of dollars in stolen wages from workers representing their interests and speaking on their behalf.”
Fuentes said she wants the impacts of fair labor to also reach the consumers.
“I want to give more credit to the consumers and the people of New York, I think they'll feel much better when they know that apple they are eating, or the milk they are having with their cereal is coming from the labor of workers who are living in better life conditions where they have dignity and feel respected,” she said.