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NY Legislature Passes Labor Rights For Farmworkers

June 27, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

Farmworkers in New York are finally winning better working conditions.

ALBANY, N.Y.—Farmworkers in New York State will get basic labor rights they’ve been denied since the 1930s, under a bill the Legislature passed earlier this month on June 19.

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, passed 94-54 in the Assembly and 40-22 in the state Senate, will give the state’s estimated 80,000 to 100,000 farm laborers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively. It will require employers to pay them time-and-a-half for overtime if they work more than 60 hours in a week, give them one day a week off, and let them refuse to work overtime. It will also make farmworkers eligible for workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has endorsed the bill in principle and is expected to sign it.

United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero, in a statement June 19, called the measure “a big step forward, offering prospects for improving the lives of agricultural workers in the state.”

“Today is the culmination of a decades-long fight centered upon one simple premise: that farmworkers deserve fairness, equality and justice,” said state AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento. “Farmworkers are finally getting basic labor rights.”

American farmworkers were excluded from New Deal-era federal labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act as part of a compromise to win support from Southern members of Congress, who objected to legislation that would increase costs for their region’s agriculture and grant political and economic rights to its substantially Afro-American workforce. New York law prohibited farmworkers from forming unions until this May, when a state appeals court ruled that unconstitutional.

The bill’s lead Senate sponsor, Labor Committee chair Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), called the ban on farmworkers unionizing “a remnant of Jim Crow-era laws.”

Agriculture trade organizations and upstate Republican legislators opposed the bill, saying it would be too costly for struggling farmers, that strikes during harvest season would be crippling, and that seven-day workweeks are crucial during the harvest. “This bill will devastate the rural upstate economy,” Assemblymember Chris Tague (R-C-Schoharie), who owned a dairy farm for five years, told the Auburn Citizen. “This bill will kill agriculture in rural upstate New York.”

As a compromise, legislators agreed to start overtime pay after 60 hours a week instead of 40 hours. A three-member wage board, consisting of an AFL-CIO representative, a New York Farm Bureau official, and a third member appointed by the state labor commissioner, will study whether overtime should be phased in after 40 hours.  Republicans wanted the state agriculture commissioner included on the board.

“That is a start since New York farm workers have no overtime protections now,” the UFW’s Romero said. California enacted a law in 2016 that will pay farmworkers overtime after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week in 2023, phased in over a four-year period that began last January.

Another compromise is that the bill prohibits farmworkers from striking. In exchange, employers will be required to recognize unions by card check, if a majority of workers sign union cards, instead of waiting for a vote. Employers will have to remain neutral during union-organizing campaigns, and disputes will be settled by arbitration.

“We are disappointed that the right to strike was not included in the bill, and we will continue to fight to expand the rights of farmworkers,” Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York, an organizing group for nonunion workers. “However, we’re encouraged about the new legal protections that have been so long in coming.” Center member Crispin Hernandez, a former dairy worker, was a plaintiff in the suit that won farmworkers the right to strike.

The bill’s Assembly sponsor, Queens Democrat Catherine Nolan, had introduced similar measures over the past 20 years, with the Assembly passing them three times.

June 27, 2019

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