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Sued, Cuomo Says He Supports New York Farmworkers’ Right to Organize

Sued, Cuomo Says He Supports New York Farmworkers’ Right to Organize

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

From The New York Times:

by Marc Santora

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Tuesday that he supported collective bargaining rights for the 60,000 New York farmworkers and that the state was renouncing a loophole in federal labor laws that had left farmworkers unprotected and marginalized for more than seven decades.

Mr. Cuomo’s statement came just hours after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint in State Supreme Court in Albany saying that preventing farmworkers from organizing was a violation of the State Constitution. The state and the governor were named as the defendants.

In a statement, Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said his administration would not fight the lawsuit.

“Because of a flaw in the state labor relations act, farmworkers are not afforded the right to organize without fear of retaliation — which is unacceptable,” he said. “We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry. This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected.”

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the civil liberties organization, said it was now looking forward to achieving a court-ordered settlement to establish protections allowing farmworkers to organize.

The right of workers to organize is enshrined in a federal law passed in 1935 known as the National Labor Relations Act.

As part of a compromise to get the legislation and other key parts of the New Deal approved by Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a number of concessions. Specifically, he needed the support of a bloc of politicians from the South, where the economy was largely driven by agriculture — and where the work force was disproportionately black. An exemption carved into the labor act put its protections beyond the reach of farmworkers. To this day, farmworkers are not accorded the same federal protections as other workers.

In 1938, New York amended its own Constitution to expand the rights of workers to bargain collectively.

“It’s a shame for New York that in 2016, a holdover, racist policy from the Jim Crow era prevents farmworkers from organizing to improve their brutal work conditions,” Ms. Lieberman said. “Enough is enough.”

The New York Farm Bureau, an industry advocacy group, said it was reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment on it specifically, but said there were reasons farmworkers should not be allowed to bargain collectively.

“The right to organize is a labor union tactic that may work in a factory setting,” the group said. “But not on a farm where the planting and harvesting of crops and the milking of cows are extremely time-sensitive and weather-dependent.”

After Mr. Cuomo said he wanted to raise the minimum hourly wage to $15 gradually, Dean Norton, the president of the group, said that the “decision to not defend the state’s labor law is an affront to agriculture and good farmers across the state.”

The fight to expand worker protections to farmworkers in New York stretches back decades. Former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the current governor’s father, even formed a task force to study the issue and found that farmworkers were largely left to fend for themselves.

“Relatively defenseless and powerless, they benefit from few protective programs,” the task force reported in 1991. “They typically work only part of the year and earn low annual incomes for arduous physical labor. All too many live in deplorable housing and have little recourse against those employers who are unscrupulous.”

The civil liberties group argues that many of those conditions still apply.

With $6.36 billion in sales in 2014, New York is one of nation’s leaders in a variety of dairy and farm products. Yet the farming industry’s workers are among the lowest paid in the state. The average yearly wages for farmworkers in 2015 was $28,430, according to data from the State Labor Department, about one-third less than the overall state average of $41,650.

Farmworkers tend to be less likely to challenge unfair conditions, according to their advocates, because many do not speak English and fear deportation. A study by the Community and Regional Development Institute at Cornell University estimates that roughly 75 percent of farmworkers in New York are undocumented.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who until last year worked 12-hour days, six days a week, as a milker on Marks Farms, near Lowville, in the Adirondacks. Marks is one of the largest dairy producers in the state, with nearly 5,000 cows and 55 workers.

In a statement, the owners of Marks Farms said that the complaint was inaccurate and that they would be working to set the record straight.

Read more from The New York Times.

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