Farm workers have sued New York for the right to organize in a groundbreaking lawsuit that demands they receive the same rights as "virtually every other worker," the New York chapter of the ACLU said on Tuesday.
The lawsuit claims that laborers are being forced to work in "life-threatening, sweatshop-like conditions" and are prevented from organizing under threat of retaliation.
It also charges that the State Employment Relations Act is part of a Depression-era measure meant to enact protections for workers but which excluded farm workers, who were majority black at the time, to accommodate segregationist policies of racist Congress members. That exclusion has held, impacting laborers who are now largely Central American and Mexican immigrants, the lawsuit states.
"It's a shame for New York that in 2016, a holdover, racist policy from the Jim Crow era prevents farm workers from organizing to improve their brutal work conditions," said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. "Enough is enough. Farm workers who we depend on to put food on our tables deserve no less dignity and humanity than any other hardworking New Yorker."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from Marks Farm LLC—one of the state's largest dairies—after his employer saw him meeting with coworkers to discuss unionizing. Hernandez, who has worked for Marks Farm since he was a teenager, says he lost his home after being terminated.
"Without farm workers there would not be milk, fruits, or vegetables, but we are treated like slaves and worse than the cows," Hernandez said. "We want to be able to improve our working conditions without fear or intimidation. We believe our lives are important and that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."
The NYCLU states:
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[Farm workers] often live packed together in labor camps with plantation-like conditions, amid infestations of rats, cockroaches and bed bugs, where they are usually isolated without regular access to transportation. Most are racial minorities who do not speak English, and as many as 75 percent are undocumented, a fact supervisors use to intimidate them into silence. Moreover, farm workers are excluded from the workplace protections afforded to nearly all other workers, including a day of rest, overtime pay, disability insurance and the right to organize without retaliation.
Erin Beth Harrist, a senior attorney with the NYCLU, said the lawsuit was "about the right to organize. The right to be protected against retaliation by the owners for exercising the right to organize."
State Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat, told News 10, "The fact that they don't have a day off, they don't get paid overtime, they don't have the right to collectively bargain and work under very adverse conditions is a travesty. I find this so egregious."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday released a statement that seemed to agree with the NYCLU's stance:
[B]ecause of a flaw in the state labor relations act, farm workers are not afforded the right to organize without fear of retaliation – which is unacceptable, and appears to violate the New York State Constitution. I agree with the NYCLU that the exclusion of farm workers from the labor relations act is inconsistent with our constitutional principles, and my administration will not be defending the act in court. We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry. This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected.
The lawsuit asks the New York State Supreme Court to declare the exclusion of farm workers from organizing rights unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates equal protection and due process laws.
"Farm workers' labor brings food, nutrition and money to New York state," said Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer at the Workers' Center of Central New York, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "It's a shame the state excludes them from one of our most important protections: the right to collectively bargain without fear. This lawsuit is an avenue to get some justice."