Farm workers march for justice

ALBANY, N.Y. – A crowd of about 300 people with bright red shirts proclaiming “Farmworkers Deserve Justice” gathered on the west side of the State Capitol building here May 11 to celebrate the arrival of a 200-mile pilgrimage of migrant farm workers and supporters.

Stepping off from the home of Harriet Tubman, the legendary African American abolitionist, in faraway Auburn, N.Y., on May Day, the farm workers marched across the state to Albany to draw attention to their struggle for economic justice and to demand passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S 3351) in the state Senate.

The pilgrimage wound its way through towns and villages, where churches offered accommodations and food. Meetings with the communities were held to build momentum for the bill’s passage. Upon arrival in Albany, the workers held a 24-hour “Vigil for Hope,” culminating in the rally. The pilgrimage was organized by the Rural Migrant Ministry, Justice for Farmworkers, and CITA (Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas).

Estimates put the number of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States at approximately 3 million. In New York State there are approximately 80,000 farm workers. About 47,000 of those workers are migratory – harvesting fruit in western New York and along the Great Lakes, planting and harvesting vegetables in central New York, trimming grapes in the Finger Lakes, working in nurseries on Long Island. Farm workers live and work in almost every one of New York’s 62 counties.

Despite their vital role, farm workers are locked out of many of the labor protections that other workers have – overtime pay, disability insurance, proper sanitation, collective bargaining rights. They are provided substandard housing and medical care, if any at all. They are often victims of discrimination and violence in the communities in which they live and work.

An atmosphere of jubilation surrounded the successful pilgrimage. Mariachis played festive music. Children, who had marched the 200 miles with their families, played in the spring breeze. Prayers commemorated the long journey. Migrant workers shared their experiences with the assembled crowd.

Rosario, a worker from Sodus, N.Y., representing a farm workers’ institute there, described how she left her home in Mexico a year ago. Her children remain in Mexico, while she works long, hard hours in the fields to support them.

Sen. Olga Mendez (R-Bronx), sponsor of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act and the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the U.S. mainland, gave an update on the bill, which has been referred to the Labor Committee since March of 2003.

The rally was attended by many leaders from the labor movement, as well as leaders from farm worker struggles throughout the country.

Dennis Hughes, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, brought greetings on behalf of the labor movement. Remarking on the shameful fact that – in the most unionized state in the country – farm workers are exempted from basic rights, Hughes told the workers, “We in the New York State AFL-CIO will not rest until you get the full rights as any other worker in this state!”

Lucas Benitez, leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, which is leading a boycott of Taco Bell because of its support for slave-like working conditions in the tomato fields, told the workers that their two struggles are going down the same path – toward guarantees of overtime pay, vacation, the right to organize, and a dignified salary.

Pointing to a fountain, glimmering in the noontime sun, Benitez said farm workers cannot rest “until justice rises up like the water of that fountain.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.