NY Appeals court rules that farmworkers have right to organize

Farmworkers harvest blueberries. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

Farmworkers harvest blueberries. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

By David Brand

A New York state appeals court ruled Thursday that an 80-year-old state law that prevents farmworkers from collectively bargaining is unconstitutional. The decision enables thousands of farmworkers, many of them immigrants, to access the same rights and protections as all other workers and paves the way for workers’ rights legislation sponsored by two Queens lawmakers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union challenged the exclusion of farmworkers from the state’s labor protections in 2016 on behalf of plaintiff Crispin Hernandez, a former dairy worker fired for organizing. Four of five justices in the Appellate Division, Third Department sided with Hernandez.

“This is a victory for farmworkers, as we have finally had our day in court,” Hernandez said in a statement. “All workers deserve to have a voice and be heard at their place of work, and farmworkers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”

Ridgewood Assemblymember Cathy Nolan has championed a bill to codify the rights of farmworkers into state law since 2010. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act bill passed the Assembly several times, but always failed in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Now that the Senate is controlled by Democrats, the bill has a strong chance to arrive at the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Corona State Sen. Jessica Ramos sponsors the senate version of the bill.

“This laudable decision by the court recognizes that our New York State Constitution was written to ensure that the human rights of all workers are respected,” Nolan said in a statement. “While there is still more to be done to ensure that farmworkers are provided the same protections as other employees in the state.”

Ramos praised the court ruling and said it was time for the state legislature to pass the bill and establish “the labor rights that farmworkers have been waiting on for decades, including a day of rest, overtime pay, unemployment benefits and the right to collectively bargain.”

Opponents say Nolan and Ramos’ bill will be expensive for farm owners, who will pass the costs on to consumers. The New York Farm Bureau, a farm owners’ lobbying group, has pointed to a report that said overtime for farmworkers would increase labor costs by $299 million, or 17 percent.

“We understand supporters of this bill mean well. We also mean well. We greatly appreciate the contributions our farmworkers make to our farms and our food supply, but these numbers demonstrate that it will be incredibly difficult for farms to meet the proposed labor mandates,” said NYFB President David Fisher. “It would be difficult for farms to compete in the marketplace when they can’t control their prices and must take what the markets demand.”

Opponents add that the measure would restrict worker and farmer flexibility in a job that depends largely on season and temperamental weather.

Justice Christine Clark wrote the lead opinion and was joined by Presiding Justice Elizabeth Garry and Justices Michael Lynch and Eugene Devine. Justice Stan Pritzker filed a dissent.

State Attorney General Letitia James said the ruling “asserts that farmworkers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law.”