Farm workers in Syracuse fight

Headline: New York State farm workers fight for right to organize 

By:  Minnie Bruce Pratt

Farm workers in Syracuse fight 

Farm workers are bravely and tenaciously fighting for the right to organize in New York. The state currently has legal protection to prevent employers from firing workers for collective action to improve conditions at their jobs. 

On May 10, worker Crispin Hernandez and two New York workers’ centers—the Workers’ Center of CNY (WC-CNY) and the Worker Justice Center (WJC) of Rochester—filed a law suit against the state of New York, demanding this right. The 1936 New York State Employment Relations Act (SERA) specifically excluded farm workers from collective bargaining. Even though the state’s 1938 Constitution granted that right to all workers without exception, New York farm workers have never been legally granted the right to organize because of the SERA exclusion.

Hernandez and the workers’ centers demanded through the lawsuit that the right to organize be acknowledged as applying to farm workers. 

At a May 10 press conference in Albany, Hernandez said: “Without farm workers 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 Hernandez’ right to freely meet with other workers and WC-CNY to talk over concerns about working conditions.

Cuomo concedes to farm workers

On May 11, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state would not oppose the suit. This promising development gives hope there will be a successful ruling in the case and a historic win for the farm workers. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is representing Hernandez, the Workers’ Center-CNY and the WJC. (New York Times, May 5) 

WC-CNY lead organizer Rebecca Fuentes emphasized, in an interview with Workers World, that the struggle is advancing through the leadership of farm workers themselves and through the Center’s commitment to “educate, agitate and organize” with embattled workers at remote farms over many years.

Since 2012, when he was still a teenager, Hernandez had been working twelve-hour days, six days a week at Marks Farm in Lowville, NY—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, Hernandez 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 one worker rented from the farm owner, the owner’s son showed up to order Fuentes off “his property.” She cited a New York State Attorney General ruling that farm workers can have invited guests in their living space. She refused to go unless the workers asked her to do so. When the workers persisted she was their guest, the owner called in the police, both county and state cops, who interrogated Fuentes, Hernandez and the other workers. Threatened with arrest, Fuentes again cited the AG ruling; the workers defied the owner and the police by insisting she stay; and the authorities left.

A week later Hernandez and Saul 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 Hernandez and Pinto were fired.

Fuentes told WW that if Cuomo’s concession is confirmed by a positive ruling, then legal protection will be guarantee to all New York farm workers for what Hernandez and other were doing when they were fired.

Known as “concerted activity,” this covers worker actions like forming committees to discuss work problems or going as representatives of co-workers to management to demand better working conditions.

“Concerted activity” by farm workers might be the request for a guaranteed day off each week, the repair of faulty machinery, or management providing protective gear. Owners usually make dairy workers pay for the shoulder-high gloves that would protect their arms against infection and animal waste. Fuentes added that “concerted activity” is the tactic being used so effectively by non-unionized low-wage workers like those at McDonald’s or WalMart.

Fuentes said winning the legal complaint would gain workers a “tool to resist”—and she stated firmly: “We are resisting!”

A powerful tool

A win would mean Hernandez and other farm workers would have a powerful tool to challenge the wide range of horrendous conditions under which they work. 

Narratives from Hernandez and farm worker Jose Garcia, 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 farm workers 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.

For women farm workers, a win would offer a way to fight back against rape and sexual harassment. Women Farm workers have a very high rate of these crimes, 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. (nyclu.org, May 10)

The win would also give farm workers a tool to oppose the increasing speed-ups and demand for more labor at poverty wages that is assembly-line farming, especially in dairy. In the U.S. technology and specialization increased dairy farm herd size nine-fold in the last twenty years. In the Northeast, farms with 700 cows generated almost 50% of the milk produced in 2014. (D.P. Blayney, “Changing Landscape of Milk Production,” 2002).

Farm workers 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 farm workers would 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 farm workers from the right to organize and collectively bargain throughout the U.S. (National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor, “Farm Labor Organizing 1905-1967: A Brief History,” 1967)

The exclusion came from pressure from white ruling-class landowners in the segregated U.S. South, determined to keep African-American farm workers from unionizing. Effective and powerful farm worker and sharecropper organizing campaigns, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, were sweeping the region during the 1930s, often under socialist and communist leadership. (R. Kelley, “Hammer and Hoe,” 1990)

But even with an historic win in the lawsuit, Hernandez and other farm workers 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 fifteen years for passage of the Farm worker 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 e-mail to WW, Fox said: “Farm workers feed all of us, and it’s time for New York to treat them with dignity and respect.”

Meanwhile, farm workers and supporters from the workers’ centers will continue to gather at far-flung farms in New York to educate, agitate, organize, march and rally. There’s a song made famous in the 1970s, during the United Farm Workers strike and struggle for union recognition in California. It’s still being sung in front of Marks Farm in Lowville, NY.

The picket sign, the picket sign
I carry it all day with me
The picket sign, the picket sign
With me throughout my life.

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