N.Y. joins Calif. in passing comprehensive labor rights for farm workers
"I don't rest, not even on holidays. Not one day of rest when my kids were on vacation. I don't receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours. I do not receive medical insurance, and if I get hurt at work I have to take care of myself.” - Oliva, farmworker | NYS AFL-CIO

ALBANY, N.Y.—To cheers from farm workers, their advocates, and the state AFL-CIO, New York joined California in enacting a wide-ranging law giving farm workers labor rights. The legislation passed in late June.

“Farm workers are finally getting basic labor rights, including the right to organize a union, a mandatory day of rest, and the right to overtime pay. Organizing rights include absolute employer neutrality and binding interest arbitration,” said state AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento.

New York’s new law also sets up a state farm worker wage board to set both minimum wages and to mandate overtime pay for farm workers, said United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero.

“Tens of thousands of lives will improve immediately and future generations of farm workers will also benefit for years to come,” Cilento said.

“Today is the culmination of a decades-long fight centered upon one simple premise: That farmworkers deserve fairness, equality, and justice. Today, justice was finally served.”

The New York legislation is important because, despite its image as an urban state, New York has a large agricultural industry, from the Hudson Valley on upstate. And many of its farms, such as in Orange County’s nationally known “black dirt” onion-growing country, depend on migrant farm workers.

Can you describe your housing? “The landlord is, as I said, our boss because he’s the owner of the house.” How many rooms are there? “Only 2.” For how many people? “9 or 10 people.” – Boris, farmworker | NYS AFL-CIO

Those workers, like other farm workers nationwide, are historically exploited by growers and sometimes by overseers who bring them to farms up and down the East Coast, including New York.

After lobbying by the United Farm Workers several decades ago, California established its own Agricultural Labor Relations Board to regulate wages, working conditions, and the right of farm workers in the nation’s largest agricultural state to unionize. UFW and other unions lobbied for similar protections in the Empire State.

On the state level, New York and California fill a gap in federal labor law. It does not cover farm workers, a relic of when FDR needed Southern racist senators’ votes to help pass the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The Southerners’ price was to exclude occupations that were majority-African American, such as housekeepers and domestic workers, and majority-Latino, such as farm workers.

UFW said New York’s new law includes collective bargaining rights, and card check recognition where a majority of workers sign election authorization cards. “There is also a process for mediation and arbitration to achieve union contracts if traditional bargaining does not produce them. It is along the lines of the California mandatory mediation law the UFW won in 2002, which lets workers bring in neutral state mediators to hammer out contracts when growers won’t negotiate them,” it said.

New York’s new farm worker rights law comes just weeks after the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled for farm workers, their advocates and the ACLU in a case where a dairy farm challenged farm workers’ right to organize. The judges said banning the farm workers from organizing violates the state constitution’s guarantee that all workers have that right.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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