By David Brand
There aren’t many fields to till, cows to milk or apples to pick in Queens these days, but that hasn’t stopped the borough from becoming a focal point in the statewide fight for farmworkers’ rights. At least among lawmakers.
New York farmworkers have been excluded from the labor protections that apply to almost all other workers in the state under a 1938 labor law. That law was modeled off the Federal Labor Relations Act, which left out agricultural workers, who were mostly black, in order to gain support from Southern Democrats in the New Deal Coalition. More than 80 years later, farmworkers — who are now mostly Latinx — still have no right to collectively bargain, receive overtime or have a day off.
Assemblymember Cathy Nolan has advocated to extend state labor protections to farmworkers since 2010. The bill has passed the Assembly several times, but, each year, the legislation has failed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
This year, however, the bill has a chance to pass both chambers of the state legislature. State Sen. Jessica Ramos has introduced the bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“It is past time to correct the injustices which prevent farmworkers from collectively bargaining, having a day of rest or being compensated for their overtime work,” Nolan told the Eagle. “Farmworkers must be afforded the same rights that all other workers receive.”
In addition to the newfound support in the state Senate, Nolan said advocates have built a powerful movement among city-dwellers and suburbanites who have begun to consider the hardworking people who supply their food.
“We have a tremendous amount of support in the community,” Nolan said. “We’re understanding that the hands picking the food that we eat, the people, have to be fairly compensated.”
Farmworkers from the North Fork to the Finger Lakes have driven the movement.
Victor Hernandez has been one of the most prominent activists. Hernandez was kicked by a milking cow and crushed by a heffer before ultimately suffering a repetitive use injury that prevented him working. Since he couldn’t work, the farmer evicted him from a ramshackle room near the barn.
“We want all New Yorkers to know that the people who put the food on the table, our rights are not being respected,” Hernandez told City Limits last year. “We need all of the people who drink milk, eat fruits, eat vegetables to really support us to know how the workers are living.”
Opponents say the bill will prove too costly for farm owners and that those costs will likely be passed onto 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.”
Ramos said such arguments are insufficient for denying labor rights to tens of thousands of low-wage workers, whose labor benefits the entire state — and world. Multinational corporations like Chobani and Seneca Foods rely on dairy produced and fruits grown in New York.
“Farmers understand that there’s merit in treating their workers well, but of course like everything else there are great employers and there are very poor employers,” Ramos told the Eagle. “This bill is really about codifying rights that exist for every other worker in New York.”
The legislation is also partly personal for Ramos, whose relatives have grown coffee in Colombia for generations.
“Farming is not foreign to me. When I’d go to Colombia as a little girl, I spent a lot of time picking coffee,” she said, adding that she has long advocated for labor rights. “That’s the reason I’m there. I’m not trying to do this from a perch down in Queens. I really honestly care to understand everyone’s perspective.”
The Senate version of the bill now has 32 sponsors, including Queens State Sens. Joseph Addabbo, Michael Gianaris, John Liu, James Sanders and Toby Ann Stavisky.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re going to get it done,” Ramos said.