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Workers Center of Central New York wins lawsuit to let farm workers organize

Payne Horning
Crispin Hernandez

A ruling from a New York appellate court has effectively cleared the way for farm workers to organize and bargain collectively.

The Third Department struck down part of a law from 1937, known today as the New York State Employment Relations Act (SERA), that excluded farm workers from the protections other employees received when organizing and collectively bargaining. The defendant in the case, the New York Farm Bureau, had argued that this exception was implied when these rights were enshrined in the New York State Constitution the following year. But in their decision, the judges rejected that interpretation, citing historical records and the lack of specific language to include that exception. The court held the right to organize and collectively bargain is a fundamental right afforded to all employees.

The plaintiff Crispin Hernandez was fired from his job at a farm in Lowville after trying to organize his fellow workers. He filed the suit in 2016 with the help of the Workers Center of Central New York, which is based in Syracuse.

Hernandez says he feels validated for the actions he took, but this is bigger than him.

"To all the workers - this is a tool for you that you can use this to have a voice, to improve your working conditions, to fight against wage theft, bad housing, discrimination in the workplace," Hernandez said. "This is something you can use to change that."

Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, who works with the New York Immigration Coalition, says their work is not over. They plan to push for the passage of the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that would guarantee these workers paid overtime and time off, and fight for the right to driver's licenses for all people regardless of their immigration status.

"We see those fights also as part of this continuous effort to improve the lives of our immigrant communities here in New York state," Ortiz Valdez said.

Brian Butler, an attorney for the New York Farm Bureau, says the court's decision disregards decades of precedent and could significantly affect farmers.

"Yes, some of them are economically viable but adding another layer of regulation and adding the potential for strikes and restrictions on hours worked during harvest season – that can have a devastating impact," Butler said.

Butler says they plan to appeal the ruling expeditiously.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.