In California, we solved this 50 years ago

New York State is confronting another challenge to its reputation as a liberal bastion. This times it emanates from the fields of its ever-important agribusiness sector. It emanates from the hands that pick its fruits and vegetables and the grapes of is growing wineries.

Farmworkers in New York State get no justice. They are servile subjects to overlords that are not required to pay overtime for long work weeks. They don’t merit a day off during from the back-breaking work of harvesting apples or lettuce. They are often paid less than minimum wage in a state with one of the highest cost of living indices. They lack the basic rights all other workers have in the state to collectively bargain for better conditions. And in a state with perhaps the highest density of union membership anywhere in the country, this is perhaps the biggest gap of all in the field of farmworker rights and protections.

In California, said the iconic Dolores Huerta to State Senator Adriano Espaillat, we solved those challenges fifty years ago. 1965 marked the beginning of the Delano Grape Boycott. Five years later, the boycott turned into a national movement and the farmworkers won their demands. Fifty years since the grape boycott, we are left wondering, what is happening in New York? Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan can probably answer that question directly. She first introduced a statewide farmworker bill of rights law 15 years ago. It has yet to pass the State Senate. Senator Espaillat points to the farm industry lobby and their coffers as a likely culprit. Either way on the losing end are thousands of New York farmworkers, the far majority of them Latino.

Last year a tour of farms near Lake Erie and the Canadian border by the Rural Migrant Ministry attracted the participation of local labor leaders and staff of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. It makes sense for labor to be concerned with the plight of these workers given the level of union membership in these environs. Many of them attended a recent rally in support of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices bill now pending in Albany. Litigation over oppressive working conditions in the 1970s in New Jersey and New York were mainstays in the docket of the then Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund – so it made sense for LatinoJustice to bear witness.

The reports were powerful and alarming. The U.S. Border Patrol has virtually carte blanche within 100 miles of any U.S. border so you know going in how cavalier they can be regarding racial profiling of Latino residents of the area. Stationing patrol cars at 3pm near public schools to detect the parents of Latino public school children – some of whom are U.S. citizens by birth is commonplace. Not unheard of was the related Border Patrol tactic of cruising by local churches at the end of Sunday mass again with an eye out for persons that meet their profile of Latino undocumented residents.

These Big-brother tactics are not surprising for this segment of federal law enforcement and far worse occurs daily along the Southern border. What was surprising were the consistent reports of the participation of New York State Troopers in patrols described above, arm and arm, so to speak, with the feds. This raises significant issues for the Governor’s office – but the farmworkers in New York had more pressing concerns than the intricacies of federal and state cooperative agreements.

The farmworkers spoke of exploitative working conditions in the fields. They recounted in matter-of-fact tones the lack of a day of rest and the lack of overtime pay. Collective bargaining per se was not a focus but its precursor, organizing a unified response, was on the table. Female farmworkers would eventually open up to talk about sexual harassment in the fields, but not initially as they focused on simple matters like unsafe and unsanitary working conditions including access to toilet facilities in the fields. One Latina noted how at dawn when she started at one end of the field the portable facilities were merely yards away. But by late morning when all workers had advanced hundreds of yards downfield, the same portable structure obviously never moved with them. A five minute bathroom break was of little help to the women and nothing was ever done about it.

Fast forward to this year and the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices act would stand to benefit between 80,000 to 100,000 farmworkers. It would grant them collective bargaining rights, protections for an 8-hour day, overtime pay and one day off per week, access to unemployment insurance and workers compensation. Indeed, it would be a major first step in establishing a modicum of fair working conditions for farmworkers. State Senator John Flanagan, the newly minted Senate Majority Leader, has yet to put the bill to a Senate vote and the end of the session draws near. This inaction on his part is another example of the contradictions that pervade Albany. As an Assemblyman Mr. Flanagan supported the bill and between 2005 and 2008 as a State Senator, Mr. Flanagan was a major sponsor of the same bill. Today his silence and inaction speaks volumes.

The farm industry in the U.S. has approached record highs in profits with the number reaching $108 billion in 2014 alone. The owners are making tons of profit but the tons of produce and fruits are hauled by farmworkers barely make minimum wage for hours ranging from 4 to 20 in one day.

Activists from around the state of New York are saying enough is enough. For the past few weeks there have been actions to remind Albany that New Yorkers stand with the farmworkers. Whether it is call-in days every Tuesday or rallies at farmer’s markets, the message is clear, farmworkers deserve a bill of rights.

The rally on June 4th in support of the bill was set before a backdrop of a typical farmer’s market in a plaza in trendy Brooklyn. Speaker after speaker connected the accessibility of local fresh produce to the plight of the workers who pick it. Jackie Vimo of the New York Immigration Coalition said it best by alluding to the customers nearby who were likely to ask about organic produce or non-genetically altered fruits but would never deem to ask about the working conditions or the exploitation of the people who pick the crops.

New York has a long way to go.

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