(CN) – Striking a blow against a law described as a remnant of Jim Crow discrimination, a New York appellate court on Thursday overwhelmingly upheld the right of the state’s farmworkers to prevent wage theft and labor abuses by forming a union.
The Empire State’s labor laws derived from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which the New York Civil Liberties Union traces to a drive by Southern segregationist lawmakers to deny black farmworkers the right to organize.
As a result, the NYCLU said, farmworkers are excluded from New York’s State Employment Relations Act, sparking a lawsuit against the New York Farm Bureau to spike that carve-out as unconstitutional.
Having initially lost the case at the trial level, the farmworkers lodged an appeal before New York’s Appellate Division, Third Department, where a 4-1 majority found Thursday that exclusion violated the state’s protections.
“First and foremost, we find the language of the constitutional provision to be significant,” Justice Christine Clark wrote in the lead opinion.
Clark added that the state constitution expresses in “no uncertain terms” that employees have an unqualified “right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
“This expressly enumerated right—adopted as a result of the Constitutional Convention of 1938 and ratification by the electorate—is enshrined in the New York Bill of Rights, providing strong evidence that the right was regarded as fundamental,” the 10-page opinion continues.
Presiding Justice Elizabeth Garry and her colleagues Michael C. Lynch and Eugene P. Devine joined the ruling.
The decision may be influential in a state that relies so heavily on farmworkers’ labor. 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.
Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York, applauded the decision.
“Farmworkers make essential contributions to New York and to all of our lives,” Fuentes said in a statement. “Their labor produces the food, nutrition, and money that sustain our economy and our communities.”
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman echoed a similar sentiment.
“The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker,” she wrote.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James also celebrated the outcome.
“This ruling asserts that farmworkers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law,” James wrote in a statement.
Cuomo commended the appellate court for protecting the “most vulnerable members of New York’s workforce.”
“From the beginning, we chose not to defend against this lawsuit because farmworkers never should have been denied the same basic rights as other workers and we believed this to not only be morally wrong, but also unconstitutional,” the governor said.
The Farm Bureau’s attorney Brian J. Butler, from the firm Bond Schoeneck & King, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ruling had one sole dissenter: Justice Stan Pritzker, who believed his colleagues misinterpreted the state’s constitution.
“This conclusion is based upon an erroneous statutory construction of the NY Constitution and is tantamount to a finding that the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1938 intended to impliedly or explicitly repeal the farm laborer exclusion, which was enacted only a year prior,” Pritzer wrote.
The Farm Bureau has not yet indicated whether it will bring the case to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.