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Farmworker lawsuit over unionizing could reshape NY agriculture

David Sommerstein
NCPR File Photo
About 40 farm workers and advocates marched to the front gates of Marks Farm, south of Lowville, NY, to protest alleged worker abuses in 2015.

The battle lines are drawn over a lawsuit that could reshape agriculture in New York state. Civil rights advocates are suing to give farm workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively. The state’s largest farm lobby has signed on in opposition, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo would not. The case centers on an incident at a dairy farm in Lewis County.

New York’s constitution guarantees almost every worker the right to organize, but a state law excludes agricultural workers.

"They are the one group who is not able to seek relief in the event that their right to organize is violated," says Erin Beth Harrist, lead counsel with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The NYCLU is suing to change the law on behalf of two upstate advocacy groups, the Workers' Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, and the state’s estimated 60,000 farmworkers. Harrist said the exclusion is unconstitutional and based on outdated policy from the Jim Crow era of the 1930s.

The specifics of the lawsuit have to do with dairy farm worker Crispin Hernandez. He claimed, after he had been working on Marks Farm outside Lowville for 12 hours a day for three years, he was fired and thrown out of worker housing after he was seen talking with a community organizer.

Hernandez also complained of poor working conditions.

"There are so many injustices where we work. They treat us like slaves and worse than the cows," Hernandez said, through a translator, at a rally last summer in Albany.

A spokesperson for Marks Farm last summer called the allegations “false” and said employee health and safety is a “top priority.”

The judge in the case recently ruled the New York Farm Bureau can intervene as a defendant. The Farm Bureau argues the lawsuit is an end-run around the New York State Legislature, where a bill to give farmworkers the right to organize has long languished in the state Senate.

NYFB spokesman Steve Ammerman said this case could be precedent setting.

"Farmer members of the farm bureau would clearly be affected by the outcome of the pending litigation," said Ammerman. "And that really makes it clear that Farm Bureau members have a stake in this case and deserve the right of representation in defense of the New York Civil Liberties Union legal claims."

The Farm Bureau and other groups representing the agriculture industry have said that farming is different from factory work. Allowing unions, they argue, would lead to higher labor costs and strikes that could put farmers out of business.

The Civil Liberties Union says it’s happy the Farm Bureau has intervened, because it believes the eventual ruling will then apply broadly to farms and farmworkers across the state.

NYCLU's Harrist adds state officials are on her side. Cuomo and state Attorney General Eric Schneidermann have both declined to defend the lawsuit and have sided with farmworkers.

"I think that just goes to show how inappropriate this exclusion is and how unconstitutional it is," said Harrist. "It’s kind of sad to say that the Farm Bureau continues to argue that this is appropriate."

The Farm Bureau says it intends to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit altogether.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.