Court Won’t Protect Unionizing NY Farmworkers

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Refusing to overturn a more than 80-year-old statute, a judge ruled Tuesday that farmworkers must turn to the New York Legislature rather than the courts to seek protection to unionize.

The farmworkers hoped to strike their industry’s exclusion from New York’s State Employment Relations Act, which protects the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining “free from the interference, restraint or coercion of their employers.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union claims that Jim Crow-era legislators left farmworkers unprotected because laborers then were predominantly black. The group has been representing farmworker Crispin Hernandez for nearly two years in a constitutional challenge to the law.

On Tuesday, Albany Supreme Court Justice Richard McNally said that it is not his call.

“Any changes to the SERA should emanate with the New York State Legislature as ‘the legislative power of this state shall be vested in the Senate and the Assembly,’” he wrote in a 7-page order.

“The separation of powers ‘requires that the Legislature make the critical policy decisions, while the executive branch’s responsibility is to implement those policies.’”

Agriculture brings in more than $6 billion a year in New York, nearly half of it from dairy and livestock product. New York ranks third nationwide in the value of its dairy farms, and ranks in the top 10 states in apples, grapes, corn and maple syrup. Much of the farm production comes from the Finger Lakes region.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman vowed to appeal.

“We will not rest until farmworkers are free to organize and have a voice in their working conditions,” she said in a statement. “Today’s decision will not deter us from making sure that farmworkers enjoy the same basic rights as every other hardworking New Yorker.”

Hernandez and his co-plaintiffs — the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York — continue to face resistance from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a co-defendant in the May 2016 lawsuit. The New York Farm Bureau is an intervenor defendant.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who represents Cuomo and the state, did not respond to a request for comment left after business hours.

Hernandez said he and his union will not be deterred. “I am disappointed with today’s decision, but we will continue fighting for a victory,” Hernandez said in a statement.

“With the help of God and all of our supporters, we will change the conditions that we deal with as farmworkers and we will keep pushing to be treated like human beings.”

Hernandez lived at and worked for Marks Farms, in Lowville, starting in 2012, before becoming joining the Workers’ Center of Central New York two years later.

That union’s lead organizer Rebecca Fuentes said Tuesday that the ruling upholds a system of racial supremacy, leaving poor farmworkers at the mercy of New York’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.

“It’s a shame that the judge has decided to continue the Jim Crow-era exclusion of farmworkers from the protected right to organize,” Fuentes said in a statement. “Today’s decision is a slap in the face for workers like Crispin Hernandez, who have to live under threat and intimidation from employers and law enforcement.”

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