Landmark Farmworker Suit Moves Forward After Farm Bureau Intervention

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
October 24, 2016 11:45 am

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The New York State Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the New York Farm Bureau can intervene as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Workers’ Center of Central New York, the Worker Justice Center of New York and farmworker Crispin Hernandez. The lawsuit, the first of its kind in New York, challenges a Jim Crow-era state law that unconstitutionally denies farmworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation. The NYCLU did not object to the Farm Bureau’s motion to intervene, allowing the matter to be finally resolved in the state courts.

Under the New York Constitution, all workers have a right to organize and collectively bargain. But the Employment Relations Act has a carve-out for farmworkers that accommodates the racist politics of the Depression Era during which it was passed. When the NYCLU originally filed this lawsuit last May, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman publicly said they agree that the exclusion conflicts with the state constitution and will not defend the lawsuit.

In response, the Farm Bureau asked the court to allow it to intervene as a party. The Farm Bureau is an immensely powerful lobby that has used its influence in Albany to squash efforts by workers and workers’ rights groups to allow farmworkers to receive even the most basic protections received by other workers. Even though farming in New York is a multi-billion dollar industry, with sales of $6.36 billion in 2014, farmworkers often earn wages well below the poverty level, and many live in overcrowded labor camps with sweatshop-like conditions. They often must contend with infestations of rats, cockroaches and bed bugs, and no regular access to transportation.

By not objecting to the motion to intervene, the plaintiffs and the NYCLU intend that a decision in favor of the farmworkers will be binding on the Farm Bureau – the biggest obstacle that farmworkers face to reform – and the decision will therefore prevent the bureau from bringing future legal challenges to farmworkers who defend their right to organize in court.

Below are reactions from the attorney and plaintiffs:

Erin Beth Harrist, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney and lead counsel on the case:

“The racist, holdover law excluding farmworkers – a relic from the Jim-Crow era — has no place in New York today. For all of the Farm Bureau’s powerful lobbying, the law is unconstitutional and we believe the courts will have no choice but to agree.”

Crispin Hernandez, a farmworker and lead plaintiff in the case:

“We all deserve a safe and healthy place to work. But for decades farmworkers have been denied the fundamental right to collectively bargain, and we face injustices and terrible conditions every day. Farmworkers deserve justice, and we will continue to stand against inequality in this state.”

Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer at the WCCNY:

“There is simply no justification for depriving farmworkers of the basic right to organize, and the Farm Bureau’s position is indefensible.”

Carly Fox, advocate with WJCNY:

“For many decades, each time farmworkers and their allies have advocated for much-needed changes to laws governing their labor rights, the Farm Bureau has used its power and influence to lobby New York lawmakers to preserve the status quo and leave farmworkers in a position of vulnerability. Such tactics won’t work in a court of law. Justice appears clearly on the side of the farmworkers, and the Farm Bureau’s participation in this lawsuit ensures that the court’s decision will be binding upon the powerful lobby.”

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