Immigrant worker in strawberry field. PattieS/ThinkstockPhotos

New York court dismisses farmworker lawsuit

Court rules that issue belongs in legislative branch, not the courts.

The Supreme Court in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 16 dismissed a lawsuit that challenged a state law denying farmworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation and tossed the issue to the state legislature.

Judge Richard McNally wrote, “…the plaintiffs and the state have not demonstrated that the Labor Law statues are racially discriminatory or that farm workers are a suspect class entitled to constitutional protections. Any changes to the SERA (State Employee Relations Act) should emanate with the New York State Legislature as ‘the legislative power of this state shall be vested in the senate and the assembly.’” 

Suit background

Plaintiff Crispin Hernandez was fired from one of New York’s largest dairies after his employer saw him meeting with coworkers and an organizer to discuss workplace conditions. The meeting took place after work hours and in a worker’s personal residence.

Hernandez, the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York filed suit. They are represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

When the plaintiffs filed suit in May 2016, both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman publicly agreed that excluding farmworkers from the right to organize conflicts with the state constitution. The state’s Employment Relations Act gives all workers, except farmworkers, the right to organize and collectively bargain. Both Cuomo and Schneiderman declined to defend the Employment Relations Act in court. In response, 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 Farm Bureau argued last year that it’s the prerogative of the legislature, not the courts, to change the law. 

Reaction

“I am disappointed with today’s decision, but we will continue fighting for a victory,” said plaintiff Hernandez. “With the help of God and all of our supporters, we will change the conditions that we deal with as farmworkers and we will keep pushing to be treated like human beings.”

“The Court’s decision is a major victory for New York’s family farms,” said David Fisher, New York Farm Bureau President. “New York Farm Bureau has long opposed farmworker collective bargaining for one simple reason. Farms do not have a standard eight-hour workday. . . . Work never stops inside the barn. For instance, cows need to be fed and milked multiple times every day. A farmworker strike or confining work agreements could jeopardize a crop or the health of an animal.”

“It’s a shame that the judge has decided to continue the Jim Crow era exclusion of Farmworkers from the protected right to organize,” said Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer at the Workers' Center of Central New York, a plaintiff in the case. “Today’s decision is a slap in the face for workers like Crispin Hernandez who have to live under threat and intimidation from employers and law enforcement.” 

What’s next?

The New York Civil Liberties Union, farmworkers, human rights defenders, legislators, labor unions and faith leaders are calling for the passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would grant farmworkers standard workplace protections.

An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 migrant, seasonal and dairy farmworkers labor on New York farms.

The ruling will also be appealed.

“The struggle in the courts to secure rights for farmworkers will take a long time, and just yesterday we were handed a setback,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. That’s why New York needs the legislature to step up on behalf of all workers and all New Yorkers to fix this persistent and profound injustice.” 

Source: New York Farm Bureau, New York Civil Liberties Union

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