Upstate N.Y. farmworkers’ May Day: ‘We will not bow down’

Dairy workers and supporters gather in Lowville, N.Y. for May Day protest.Photo: Workers Center of Central New York

Dairy workers and supporters gather in Lowville, N.Y. for May Day protest.
Photo: Workers Center of Central New York

Latino and Latina immigrant farmworkers held their first-ever May Day march in upstate New York at Marks Dairy Farms in Lowville on May 1. The dairy workers were protesting the violent beating and firing of Francisco, a worker who objected to being ordered to work on his only day off. They demanded dignity and respect, safe working conditions, and an end to wage theft and physical and verbal violence.

About 40 people gathered to support them, some driving hundreds of miles from Brooklyn, Staten Island, Rochester, Syracuse, Marietta, Canton and elsewhere in New York. The action was called by the May 1st Agricultural Workers Committee, the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York. Other individuals represented the Service Employees union, Syracuse Peace Council, Milk Not Bombs and Workers World Party.

May 1st organizer José Canas spoke of May Day solidarity across borders: “As we march in Lowville, workers in my country of El Salvador are marching for their rights — our families are marching for our rights and theirs.” He also emphasized the value of dairy workers’ labor in creating mega-profits for transnational businesses.

Marks Farms, with 5,000 cows and 50 workers, is one of the biggest of 5,600 dairy farms in New York. The state is fourth in U.S. milk production and first in yogurt production. The small town of Lowville is dominated by gleaming steel towers of the plant that is the largest maker of Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese in the U.S.

Chanting “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (“The people united will never be defeated”), the crowd marched on dirt roads through the farm, past giant milking barns as huge tanker trucks thundered by. People then rallied near the farm office before presenting a letter of demands to management.

‘Get together, speak up!’

Francisco, still recovering from injuries, sent this message to the rally: “If the supervisors beat you up, scream at you or humiliate you, do something. You are working for your money. It is not a gift. Go in groups, get together, speak up.”

One worker leader said, “We have gone through hunger, been through cold. We are not afraid because life has already turned its back on us. I will not bow down to management. When it comes to justice, I want to show my face.”

New York farmworkers live in isolation, fearful of deportation raids, subject to unsafe working conditions and brutal work schedules. Some live in conditions of virtual indentured servitude. One rally participant knew a worker who could not leave the farm where he worked for four years.

Farmworkers are specifically excluded from some basic U.S. worker rights like the right to a day off, the right to be paid overtime and the right to form a union.

Rebecca Fuentes, director of the Workers’ Center of CNY, spoke forcefully of the organizing effort: “Workers have the right to assembly. So, law or no law, we will organize. We won’t wait for lawmakers!”

Previous organizing has won hundreds of dollars in stolen wages for farmworkers, as well as improved compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for  hazardous chemicals used in dairy work.

Other upstate agricultural workers are also in motion. Five members of the Workers’ Center of CNY have filed a class-action lawsuit to recover stolen wages from an Oswego apple-processing company. Champlain Valley Specialty produces GrabApple snacks sold mostly to the New York City School District. The company was set up with local and state tax incentives and received Department of Defense contracts.

The workers were fired after protesting wage theft when the company did not pay them for regular hours of work, overtime and work during lunch breaks. The plaintiffs ask other workers who experienced similar issues to theirs at Champlain Valley to contact them at the Workers’ Center of CNY to join the class-action suit.