by Enrico Villamaino

NEW YORK – In a 4-1 decision, a state appeals court has ruled that farmworkers have the right to organize and collectively bargain.

On May 23, a New York Appellate Division panel ruled that excluding farm workers from organizing and collectively bargaining is “unconstitutional as a matter of law.”

Farm workers have been excluded by a specific provision in the State Employment Relations Act since the 1930s. Critics of this provision maintain that this was a racially motivated exception, one stained by Jim Crow politics and designed to discriminate against black workers.

The plaintiff in the case is Crispin Hernandez. In 2015, Hernandez was fired as a dairy worker in upstate Lowville. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which represented Hernandez in the resulting 2016 lawsuit, this was a result of Hernandez’s collaborating with his fellow dairy workers and human rights organizers to discuss workplace conditions and workers’ rights.

The rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain were enshrined in the fifth and most recent iteration of the New York State Constitution, adopted in 1938. However, the State Employment Relations Act, which was enacted in 1937, exempted farmworkers from those rights.

An Albany County trial court had previously granted New York Farm Bureau’s (NYFB) motion to dismiss Hernandez’s lawsuit. This more recent ruling overturned that decision.

“The court’s ruling today was unequivocal that denying farmworkers basic labor rights is flat-out unconstitutional and farmworkers, like other workers, have the right to organize,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker.”

State officials have stated they would not take any action to defend the lawsuit. Both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James supported the decision and are currently lobbying for the passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. Along with the right to organize and collectively bargain, the bill includes other farmworker protections such as allowing farmworkers one day of rest each week and including farmworkers in laws relating to overtime compensation, unemployment insurance, workers compensation and disability benefits.

With those in Albany declining to oppose to the judicial ruling, the NYFB announced its intention to defend the exclusion. An Albany County trial court granted NYFB’s motion to dismiss.

Speaking on behalf of his organization’s membership, NYFB President David Fisher said, “We are extremely disappointed in the majority’s decision and the breadth of its ruling. The Appellate Court was considering the trial court’s decision on a motion to dismiss, which, if denied, would have permitted Farm Bureau to fully litigate this case in the trial court. Instead, the majority of the court decided to make a far-reaching determination by declaring the right to collectively bargain as a ‘fundamental right,’ on par with the freedoms of speech and religion. We believe that the majority’s conclusion is unsupportable and disregards decades of precedent.

“Speaking more broadly, if the legislature, and now the courts, do not recognize the value of preserving a viable and economically sustainable food production system in the state, New York agriculture will continue to shrink under a mountain of mandates. Our rural economy and local job opportunities will suffer. And New Yorkers will find it harder to access New York grown food, instead relying on food brought in from out of state, or worse yet, out of the country to feed their families. New York Farm Bureau fully intends to appeal the court’s ill-conceived ruling.”

According to NYFB’s attorney, Brian Butler of Bond, Schoeneck & King, this ruling ignores generations of antecedent interpretations. “We are committed to taking this matter before the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. This ruling ignores 80 years of precedent, in which the constitutional provision operated in harmony with the state statute.”

How this may negatively impact farms throughout the Empire State is now a matter for great debate. The NYFB estimates this ruling could increase labor costs throughout the state by $300 million annually.

State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said allowing farm workers to collectively bargain “could have a devastating effect on the already fragile agriculture industry in New York… This is an unreasonable thing to ask farmers and it will have dire consequences to the agriculture industry.”

Hernandez is committed to defending his position and working for the rights of farm labor throughout New York. For him, it is a simple matter of fairness. “All workers deserve to have a voice and be heard at their place of work, and farm workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity,” he said.

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