N.Y. Farmhands Fight for Union Protections

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — A farmworker fired for discussing unionization with co-workers says an outdated New York law is to blame for his dismissal, claiming in court that farmhands lack labor protections other industries have.
     Crispin Hernandez, along with organizations Workers’ Center of Central New York and Worker Justice Center of New York, filed their 29-page complaint in New York Supreme Court on Tuesday, naming the state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo as defendants.
     The case focuses on New York’s State Employment Relations Act (SERA), a 79-year-old law that gives employees the right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining “free from the interference, restraint or coercion of their employers.”
     But lead plaintiff Hernandez claims that SERA carved out an exception for farm laborers, not allowing them the same protections in regards to employer retaliation.
     “The farmworker exclusion in SERA persists to this day and as a result, employees of one of New York’s largest industries — agriculture – do not have access to SERA’s protections,” the lawsuit states.
     Hernandez says he lived at and worked for Marks Farms, located in Lowville, N.Y., starting in 2012. He became a member of the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) in August 2014 because he wanted a forum to discuss workplace issues with other farmworkers, according to the complaint.
     About a year later, he organized a meeting at a fellow worker’s home — a trailer on the farm’s property — with an organizer from the labor group, referred to in the lawsuit as Ms. Fuentes.
     Hernandez says that the discussions were cut short when one of the farm supervisors appeared and “demanded to know why Ms. Fuentes was in the trailer.” He also allegedly told her “that she had to leave or else he would call the police.”
     Tuesday’s lawsuit claims that the supervisor “returned approximately 40 minutes later accompanied by two officers” and said to the officers that he wanted Fuentes arrested, which they allegedly refused to do.
     Hernandez claims that the ruckus at the meeting was enough to dissuade most of the other farmworkers from further unionization talk, and says that he and another worker who supported him were told they were fired shortly thereafter.
     He was also told by the farm that his final paycheck would be withheld until he signed a piece of paper stating that he was “discharged as part of a workforce reduction at the farm,” according to the complaint.
     The lawsuit claims that “these types of employer interference with organizing are not unique to Marks Farms; similar patterns are repeated in farms across New York.”
     “The combination of poverty, isolation, hazardous working conditions, lack of benefits, lack of permanent legal status and substandard housing makes farmworkers among the most exploited groups in the American labor force,” the complaint states.
     The lawsuit cites statistics noting that farmworkers’ average wages are typically well below the poverty level. Estimates from the New York State Department of Labor for the first quarter of 2015 say that the median wages for farm, ranch, and agricultural animal workers is $28,430 per year, with entry level wages of $19,230.
     The complaint also says that New York’s farmworkers are predominantly racial and ethnic minorities.
     “Cornell University’s Community and Regional Development Institute estimates that as many as 75 percent of farmworkers in New York are undocumented,” the lawsuit notes.
     Farming in New York is a multi-billion-dollar industry. The state is one of the nation’s leaders in certain dairy products and farm produce, and there are about 60,000 workers employed in its agriculture industry, according to the complaint.
     The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), representing Hernandez in the case, is looking to give those workers the same retaliation protections as many other employees in the state.
     “Because of an 80-year-old outdated law, poverty, fatalities and legally sanctioned discrimination are a way of life for tens of thousands of people working in New York,” Erin Beth Harrist, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel on the case, said in a statement. “New York must reject the farmworker exclusion for violating our constitution, progressive values and commitment to human rights.”
     The New York Farm Bureau said they were “unable to comment on specifics of the NYCLU lawsuit,” but spokesman Steve Ammerman said that “public allegations being made in the organization’s announcement greatly misrepresent dairy farms, and working conditions of all farm employees in New York. In addition, the allegations contradict and ignore the valued relationships that farmers across the state have with their employees.”
     “The right to organize is a labor union tactic that may work in a factory setting, but not on a farm where the planting and harvesting of crops and the milking of cows are extremely time sensitive and weather-dependent,” Ammerman said. “For a farm to lose employees to an untimely walk-off of the job could jeopardize a season’s crop and place livestock health at risk.”
     Gov. Cuomo signaled that, despite being named as a defendant in the case, he supports the lawsuit.
     “I agree with the NYCLU that the exclusion of farm workers from the labor relations act is inconsistent with our constitutional principles, and my administration will not be defending the act in court,” the governor said in a statement. “We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry. This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected.”

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