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Farmworkers suing New York State for more rights

Karen DeWitt

Advocates for farm workers  are trying a new route to gain the right to form a union and be allowed benefits afforded to other laborers in New York. They are suing the state government.

Governor Cuomo says he agrees with the farmworkers and won’t be defending the law in court.

For decades, migrant farmworkers and their advocates have tried to get a law passed to place the laborers under the protection of the state’s labor laws, giving them the right to form unions, and collectively bargain with their farmer employers for better working conditions.

But the issue has stalled in the state Senate. Senator Adriano Espaillet,  a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, says he believes there is enough support for passage, but he says the Republican leadership has not put the bill on the floor for a vote. And he says he’s frustrated.

“I’m very angry,” Espaillet said. “This is the last remnant of the Southern Jim Crow laws, right here in New York State.”

Even Governor Cuomo’s ex wife, Kerry Kennedy, a long time advocate for farmworkers, who has lobbied at the Capitol in the past, could not get the bill to budge. Cuomo’s also supported the bill.

The advocates say instead of waiting any longer, they’ve teamed up with the New York Civil Liberties Union and have  filed a lawsuit. They say exempting the estimated 60,000 farm workers from the state’s existing labor laws, which includes the right to form a union,  denies them equal protection and due process under the state’s constitution.

“The state’s constitution protects the fundamental right to organize,” said the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman. “And we are going to assert that right in court, and we’re going to win.”

They’ve chosen a particularity egregious case to make their point. Crispin Hernandez, is a worker who says he was fired from his job at a large dairy, Marks Farms,  in Lowville. Hernandez says he worked 12 hour days at the farm for three years, lost his job and was thrown out of the housing provided to the workers, after he was seen meeting with a community organizer for farmworkers.  

“They treat us like slaves and worse than the cows,” said Hernandez. “There are so many injustices where we work.”

The dairy farm, in a statement, calls the allegations “false."

“Marks Farms is a family-owned dairy farm that makes employee health, safety and well-being a top priority,” said spokeswoman Lindsey Peck. “We will be working cooperatively with the appropriate authorities to set the record straight about our farm and its employees. “ 

Governor Cuomo says he won’t defend the state against the lawsuit, because he agrees with the farmworkers, and says it’s an “injustice” that “must be corrected”.  Cuomo, speaking at an unrelated event in the Adirondacks, says he’s made some gains for farm workers during his administration, including raising the minimum wage for all workers in New York to $15 an hour downstate and $12.50 an hour upstate.

“We’ve made great progress with farmworkers,” Cuomo said.  

In a statement, the New York Farm Bureau says it’s “extremely disappointed” that Cuomo is supporting the lawsuit. It says the news, combined with the higher minimum wage is “an affront to agriculture and good farmers across the state.” And the Farm Bureau says the  dairy farm portrayed in the lawsuit “greatly misrepresents dairy farms, and working conditions of all farm employees, in New York."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.