Workers harvesting grapes in a local vineyard in 2017. File photo: Peter Blasl

A state appeals court ruled yesterday that farmworkers have the right to organize and collectively bargain.

In a 4-1 decision, an Appellate Division panel ruled “unconstitutional as a matter of law” the exclusion of farmworkers in the state labor law provisions granting employees the right to organize and bargain collectively.

The plaintiff, Crispin Hernandez, was fired from his job as a dairy worker in upstate Lowville in 2015 after his boss saw him meeting after work with co-workers and human rights organizers to discuss workplace conditions, according to the complaint brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented Hernandez in the lawsuit he brought against the state in 2016.

The New York Constitution, adopted in 1938, grants workers the right to organize and collectively bargain, but the State Employment Relations Act, adopted in 1937, exempted farmworkers from those rights.

The NYCLU calls the exclusion a “Jim Crow-era” law that’s “a carryover from a New Deal legislative compromise with segregationist congressmen to exclude farmworkers and domestic workers, who were predominantly Black at the time.”

The state announced it would not defend the lawsuit. The governor and majority leaders in both chambers of the state legislature are currently moving forward with legislation — the Farmworkers Fair Labor practices Act — that includes the right to organize and collectively bargain, as well as other farmworker protections.

After the state announced its position, the New York Farm Bureau intervened in the case to defend the exclusion. An Albany County trial court granted N.Y. Farm Bureau’s motion to dismissed.

A five-member panel of the Appellate Division, Third Dept., reversed the lower court’s decision.

The state constitution’s use of “the broad and expansive word ‘employees’… without qualification or restriction … was meant to afford the constitutional right to organize and collectively bargain to any person who fits within the plain and ordinary meaning of that word,” including farmworkers, the court wrote.

“[T]he constitutional right bestowed upon ‘employees’ in this state ‘to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing’ (NY Const, art I, § 17) is a fundamental right,” the court ruled. Any statute that infringes upon a fundamental right is “void unless necessary to promote a compelling [s]tate interest and narrowly tailored to achieve that purpose.”

“[T]he exclusion of ‘individuals employed as farm laborers’ from SERA’s definition of the term ‘employees,’ set forth in Labor Law § 701(3)(a), is unconstitutional as a matter of law,” wrote Justice Christine Clark for the majority.

“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,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a press release. “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.”

N.Y. Farm Bureau president David Fisher said the organization is “extremely disappointed in the majority’s decision and the breadth of its ruling.”

The Appellate Division 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, Fisher said in a statement. “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.”

Fisher said Farm Bureau “fully intends” to appeal what he called an “ill-conceived ruling.”

“[I]f 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,” Fisher said. “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.”

Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said the right to organize and bargain collectively will have far-reaching impacts on local farmers and, by extension, local agriculture.

Collective bargaining raises costs, Carpenter said.

“Whenever farmers face additional costs and burdens of regulations, they can’t pass them on to the consumer because of the commodities market,” Carpenter said. Wholesalers will buy produce from the cheapest source, whether out of state or out of the country, so local farmers “just aren’t able to compete and risk being put out of business,” he said.

“If everyone in the U.S. was on a level playing field, that’s a different story,” Carpenter said. Pennsylvania has a $7.25 minimum wage. New York’s is $12.”

If the workforce has the ability to strike, it could have devastating impacts on farms, Carpenter said.

“With agricultural crops, we can’t just pick up where we left off” when the strike is over, he said.

“Do you want a cheap, safe food supply — or do you want to pay 20 percent or 30 percent more?” Carpenter asked.

“Farmers believe in farmworkers and do their very best to always take care of the workers because they play such a vital role in farm operations. Without the workers we won’t have farms,” Carpenter said.

The Farmworkers Fair Labor practices Act, which is pending in the state legislature, would amend state labor law to — in addition to granting collective bargaining rights — allow farmworkers one day of rest each week and include farmworkers in laws relating to overtime compensation, unemployment insurance, workers compensation and disability benefits.

North Fork Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo opposes the bill. It “could have a devastating effect on the already fragile agriculture industry in New York,” he said.

“This is an unreasonable thing to ask farmers and it will have dire consequences to the agriculture industry,” Palumbo said.

“The employees understand the nature of this work and its seasonal nature when they accept the job. Farmers cannot afford this, produce prices will rise and thousands of farms will go out of business,” Palumbo said.

Jorge [not his real name], a local farmworker who has worked at the same Riverhead farm since 2006, says he usually works 60 hours a week, with no overtime pay and no day off. He earns $16 an hour.

“For the first time in a long time, some farmers are treating us better and that is because there has been a lot of advocacy in our behalf,” Jorge said.

“We are workers, we want to keep working in the farms, but we deserve the same rights as other types of workers,” he said.

Maria Piedrabuena contributed reporting.

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.