Staff and supporters of the Worker Justice Center of NY (WJCNY) were in court yesterday in Albany as we continue our fight in challenging the Jim Crow-era state law, the State Employment Relations Act, that denies farmworkers the right to organize in their workplaces without the fear of retaliation. WJCNY is a co-plaintiff in the case, along with farmworker, Crispin Hernandez and sister organization, the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY). The plaintiffs are represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The basis of the lawsuit, now before the appellate court in Albany, stems from the firing of Crispin Hernandez by his former employer, Mark’s Farm, after Crispin was observed by his employer discussing poor workplace conditions with co-workers and an organizer from the WCCNY. “Without farmworkers and our labor, New Yorkers wouldn’t have fruits or vegetables to put on their dinner table,” said Mr. Hernandez. “We deserve to be treated like human beings, without fear of retaliation.”
Coinciding with yesterday's court appearance, Mr. Hernandez penned an op-ed published in the New York Daily News discussing the struggles of farmworkers who lack the essential right to organize their workplaces and why it is important to end the shameful exclusion of farmworkers from this essential right.
When the State Employment Relations Act was passed in 1937 to incorporate the federal New Deal Era-protections for workers into New York law, lawmakers carried over a carve-out excluding farmworkers and domestic workers from worker protections. The federal protections had excluded farmworkers, the majority of whom were black at the time, as a compromise to get the votes of segregationist members of Congress. This exclusion now applies to farmworkers in New York today, who are, for the most part, immigrant workers.
When the plaintiffs initially filed suit in May of 2016, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Attorney General publicly agreed that excluding farmworkers from the right to organize conflicts with the state constitution. Both declined to defend the lawsuit in court. However, the New York Farm Bureau requested that the court allow it to intervene to defend the law as a party in the case. The New York State Attorney General’s office filed a brief in support of the position that the exclusion is unconstitutional.
“There is simply no justification for depriving farmworkers of the basic right to organize,” said Carly Fox, an advocate with the Worker Justice Center of New York. “For many decades, each time farmworkers and their allies have advocated for much-needed changes to laws governing their labor rights, the Farm Bureau has used its power and influence to lobby New York lawmakers to preserve the status quo and leave farmworkers in a position of vulnerability. Justice is clearly on the side of the farmworkers, and we will keep fighting until we win full equal rights.”
A decision by the appellate court is expected in the coming months.
For more coverage of our day in court, see:
"Suit to allow farmworker organizing heard in Albany appeals court." Watertown Daily Times, Feb. 12, 2019
"Arguments heard in farm worker rights suit." Times Union, Feb. 11, 2019