Farmworkers are bravely and tenaciously fighting for the right to organize in New York state. Currently there is no statewide legal protection to prevent employers from firing workers for collective action to improve conditions at their jobs.
On May 10, worker Crispin Hernández and two New York workers’ centers — the Workers’ Center of CNY (WC-CNY) and the Worker Justice Center (WJC) of Rochester — filed a lawsuit against the state of New York, demanding this right. The 1936 New York State Employment Relations Act (SERA) specifically excluded farmworkers from collective bargaining. Even though the state’s 1938 Constitution granted that right to all workers without exception, New York farmworkers had never been legally granted the right to organize because of the SERA exclusion.
Hernández and the workers’ centers demanded through the lawsuit that the right to organize be acknowledged as applying to farmworkers.
At a May 10 press conference in Albany, Hernández said: “Without farmworkers there would not be milk, fruits or vegetables, but we are treated like slaves and worse than the cows. We want to be able to improve our working conditions without fear or intimidation. We believe our lives are important and that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The lawsuit is based on the blatant suppression of lead plaintiff Crispin Hernández’ right to freely meet with other workers and WC-CNY to talk over concerns about working conditions.
Cuomo concedes to farmworkers
On May 11, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would not oppose the lawsuit. This promising development gives hope that there will be a successful ruling in the case and a historic win for the farmworkers. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is representing Hernández, the Workers’ Center-CNY and the WJC.
WC-CNY lead organizer Rebecca Fuentes told Workers World that the farmworkers are advancing through their own leadership and through the Center’s commitment to “educate, agitate, organize” with embattled workers at remote farms over many years. (New York Times, May 5)
Since 2012, when he was still a teenager, Hernández had been working 12-hour days, six days a week at Marks Farm in Lowville, N.Y. — under so much pressure that sometimes he had no time to eat or go to the bathroom all day. He was the sole support of his extended family of nearly a dozen people.
Marks Farm, a leading milk producer in New York, has 10,000 animals and sixty workers. There are 60,000 workers on state dairy farms, which had sales of $6.36 billion in 2014.
In 2015, Hernández and other workers were having conversations with Fuentes about safety at work and setting up English classes. As they met one evening after work hours in a small apartment that one worker had rented from the farm owner, the owner’s son showed up to order Fuentes off “his property.” Fuentes cited a New York state attorney general’s ruling that farmworkers can have invited guests in their living space and refused to go unless the workers asked her to do so.
The workers persisted, saying Fuentes was their guest. That’s when the owner called in both county and state cops, who interrogated Fuentes, Hernández and the other workers. Threatened with arrest, Fuentes again cited the ruling, the workers defied the owner and the police by insisting she stay, and the authorities left.
A week later, Hernández and Saúl Pinto, along with Fuentes and other WC-CNY volunteers, were walking trailer-to-trailer to tell workers about their rights when they were observed by the owner’s son. The next day, both Hernández and Pinto were fired.
Fuentes told WW that if Cuomo’s concession is confirmed by a positive ruling, then legal protection will be guaranteed to all New York farmworkers for what Hernández and others were doing when they were fired. Known as “concerted activity,” this covers worker actions like forming committees to discuss work problems or representing co-workers before management to demand better working conditions.
“Concerted activity” might include requesting a guaranteed day off each week, repairing faulty machinery or management providing protective gear. Owners usually make dairy workers pay for shoulder-length gloves to protect their arms against infection and animal waste. Fuentes added that “concerted activity” is the tactic being used so effectively by nonunionized low-wage workers like those at McDonald’s or WalMart.
Fuentes said the winning of the legal complaint would gain workers “a tool to resist” — and she stated firmly: “We are resisting!”
A powerful tool
A win would mean that Hernández and other farmworkers have a powerful tool to challenge the wide range of horrendous working conditions.
Narratives from Hernández and farmworker José García, posted by the NYCLU, tell of 12-hour days at low pay with no overtime; work-related injuries without medical care and lack of equipment to protect or prevent injuries; extreme rural isolation and lack of transport to connect to resources; and racism, verbal intimidation and physical assault by supervisors and owners.
New York farmworkers have a fatality rate 20 times that of the average worker in the state. Some work 90 to 95 hours a week, operating dangerous equipment under grueling conditions. (nyclu.org, May 10)
For women farmworkers, a win would offer a way to fight back against rape and sexual harassment. Farmworker women are targets of these crimes at a very high rate, according to a 2013 Center for Investigative Reporting study. The women are particularly vulnerable because of documentation status, rural or social isolation or as the primary breadwinner for their children.
The win would give farmworkers a tool to oppose the increasing speedups and demand for more labor at poverty wages that is assembly-line farming, especially in dairy. In the U.S., technology and specialization have increased dairy farm herd size nine-fold in the last 20 years. In the Northeast, farms with at least 700 cows generated almost 50 percent of the milk produced in 2014.
Farmworkers are typically subjected to threat and intimidation if they demand improved work conditions from bosses. In New York state many are Mexican and Central American, and they face possible deportation or loss of a continuing work visa if they confront farm owners.
Extending the right to organize to New York farmworkers would also shatter an 80-year stretch of racist injustice begun in 1935 when the Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board. That act specifically excluded farmworkers from the right to organize and collectively bargain throughout the U.S.
The exclusion came from pressure from white ruling-class landowners in the segregated U.S. South, determined to keep African-American farmworkers from unionizing. Effective and powerful farmworker and sharecropper organizing campaigns, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, were sweeping the region during the 1930s, often under socialist and communist leadership.
But even with a historic win in the lawsuit, Hernández and other farmworkers still would not have the right to overtime, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation, denied under existing New York laws.
Carly Fox, advocate with the Workers Justice Center of Rochester, said the WJC has been fighting for almost 15 years for passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would guarantee additional rights. On May 15, a 200-mile march in support of the bill began in Long Island and will rally on June 1 in Albany demanding a “yes” for the legislation.
In an email to WW, Fox said, “Farmworkers feed all of us, and it’s time for New York to treat them with dignity and respect.”