Judge dismisses lawsuit that sought collective bargaining rights for farmworkers

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought collective bargaining rights for farmworkers, satisfying a request from New York Farm Bureau.

The lawsuit challenged a more than century-old law that exempts farm workers from the right to organize. Filed in May by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a not-for-profit focused on defending civil liberties and civil rights, the lawsuit asked the state Supreme Court to declare the exclusion unconstitutional.

“The Court’s decision is a major victory for New York’s family farms,” Farm Bureau stated in a release announcing the Jan. 3 decision by state Supreme Court Justice Richard McNally Jr.

NY Farm Bureau argued in state Supreme Court in Albany last July “that our system of government requires that the legislature change state law, not the courts,” stated Farm Bureau. “The Court agreed.”

In his decision, 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 …”

Farm Bureau had petitioned the court in 2016 to become a defendant after the governor and attorney general did not uphold and defend the State Labor Relations Act from the lawsuit filed by the NYCLU.

“New York Farm Bureau has long opposed farmworker collective bargaining for one simple reason. Farms do not have a standard eight-hour workday,” stated David Fisher, NYFB president. “Last year’s growing season demonstrated that. Weeks of heavy rains followed by shorter bouts of sunshine forced farmers and their employees to squeeze in weeks of work into just a few dry days. 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. Everyone who works in farming understands this, including farmworkers. Farmers have great respect for the people who they employ, and this court victory does not diminish that. They value their employees’ commitment, work ethic, and the partnership it takes to get the job done on the farm.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of farm worker Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from one of New York’s largest dairies, Marks Farms LLC in Lowville, Lewis County. According to the NYCLU, Hernandez was fired after his employer saw him meeting with co-workers and an organizer to discuss workplace conditions, even though it was after work hours and in a worker’s personal residence. Hernandez, who had been working 12-hour shifts six days a week at Mark’s Farms for three years since he was a teenager, lost both his job and his home.

The NYCLU’s lawsuit was also filed on behalf of the Workers’ Center of Central New York, a group that organizes and advocates for low-wage workers, and the Worker Justice Center of New York, an organization that seeks justice for farmworkers through advocacy and legal representation. Both groups say they have been unable to provide critical supports to farm workers because the workers are unconstitutionally excluded from protections for organizing.