In May, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit against New York state, seeking to allow farmworkers collective bargaining rights. Now, the New York Farm Bureau has filed for intervenor status in order to challenge the lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New York filed suit on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, The Workers' Center Of Central New York, and the Worker Justice Center Of New York. The centers are economic justice advocates.
The ACLU suit claims Hernandez was fired from Marks Farms in September 2015 after trying to organize co-workers to address unfair working conditions. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act. The document states: “…the State is violating Article 1, Section 17 of the New York State Constitution.”
Farmworkers are exempted through the New York State Employment Relations Act, known as SERA. ACLU of NY Senior Attorney and lead counsel in the case Erin Beth Harrist says the loophole has existed since the late 1930’s. “Almost all other employees in the state of New York have the right to organize and it is very important for farmworkers. They're some of the most taken advantage of group of people in the state sometimes. And so this right is important so that they can make sure that they are working under safe and humane conditions.”
New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton announced Monday that the state’s largest farm advocacy group is asking for intervenor status in the lawsuit. “The governor and the state of New York have decided that they were not going to fight the lawsuit. So we felt that as the largest representative of farmers across the state of New York that we needed to step up and ask the courts for intervention status. And if we do get that status then we will also be making a motion to dismiss the lawsuit altogether.”
Farm Bureau Attorney Brian Butler filed the notice of motion to intervene with the Albany County Clerk’s office Monday afternoon and expects assignment to a judge within a few days. “Because the claims made by the plaintiffs are going to affect the farmer members of the Farm Bureau we believe that the Farm Bureau has standing to intervene as a defendant and actually defend the claims asserted by the plaintiffs.”
Butler’s filing notes that for nearly 20 years the farm labor exemption has been under legislative review. “The ACLU is attempting to bypass that process and is asking a judge to, or the courts, to do what we believe is a legislative function and this issue should be left for the legislature to determine and not for the courts to determine.”
The ACLU’s Harrist says the state constitution is clear. “This is a matter for the courts because it is about the constitutional rights of this group of employees and while the legislature should fix that because it is constitutionally required it is certainly a question for a court to take up and to answer.”
The ACLU’’s suit describes harsh farm conditions including unhygienic "labor camps" and “abusive and hostile treatment … while working long, exhausting days for meager wages.” Farm Bureau President Norton says that reflects how little the ACLU knows about farm operations. “There are three different regulatory agencies that have to approve the housing. They have to get paid the minimum wage just like everyone else and the average wage for a farm worker in the state of New York is over $12.50. So it's getting hurtful that they like to hearken back to something that might have happened in the 20's and 30's.”
A spokeswoman for Governor Andrew Cuomo sent an emailed statement to WAMC, saying “This administration is committed to the continued growth of the state’s agricultural industry, while at the same time ensuring equal rights and equal pay for our farmworkers. There is absolutely no reason that these employees should be excluded from the legal and protected right to organize without retaliation that is afforded to all other workers in this state. As we have said previously, we will not defend this seemingly unconstitutional act in court.”