ALBANY TIMES-UNION

July 20, 2017

 

Arguments in historic farmworkers' rights case heard Thursday

 

Case would decide rights for tens of thousands of unprotected workers

 

Albany --- The first arguments in a case that could grant collective bargaining rights to tens of thousands of farm workers were heard in the State Supreme Court Thursday. 

The case revolves around Crispin Hernandez, a dairy worker who sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration last year after alleging he was intimidated, and ultimately fired, for voicing complaints about mistreatment at an upstate farm. 

As is the case in many other states, New York farm workers are not allowed many of the collective bargaining rights given to other laborers, having been excluded from legal worker protections for roughly 80 years. That, advocacy groups say, has left workers, who are often foreign-born, not fluent in English, and largely dependent on their employers for housing and other amenities, perpetually vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Last year Cuomo said his administration would decline to fight Hernandez's case, which is being brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and two upstate workers' rights groups, effectively granting overnight union rights to tens of thousands of workers.

But soon after, the New York Farm Bureau was allowed to challenge the case. The Farm Bureau has for years argued that the changes would be financially devastating on farms, where the length of work days is largely determined by weather.

By excluding farm workers from those protections, the plaintiff's lawyers argued Thursday, the state's labor laws are in direct conflict with the fundamental right to organize and, thus, are unconstitutional. 

"When the language is clear, that's how we need to interpret the constitution," argued NYCLU attorney Erin Harrist. "And the language here is crystal clear. It says 'employees.' It does not say 'some employees.'"

Because the state's labor laws were informed by what she called "offensive and horrific" language that she said was aimed at disproportionately affecting minority groups, the court should remedy their consequences. 

The Farm Bureau, meanwhile, alleged Thursday that the suit was simply a way for NYCLU to subvert the state Legislature, wherein similarly minded bills have been tried and failed for decades.

"This is not a case that was filed to solve an actual controversy," Brian Butler said.

"This is a big issue that needs to be resolved by the Legislature," he said. "... The fact that they haven't acted doesn't mean we should sidestep"  lawmakers. 

Rather, he said NYCLU's aim was for a legal "rubber stamp."

"That's not what the judiciary is intended for," Butler said.

But the NYCLU argues that the court has a duty to remedy what it says are unconstitutional exclusions. 

"Really it comes down to the question that this is a fundamental right in the constitution," Harrist said. "And it's the court's job to adjudicate the constitutionality of legislation. Which is why this is the appropriate forum for this case to be heard."

"It is a constitutional question," she said. 

She also dismissed the idea that the NYCLU was coordinating with Cuomo's administration to further the decades long push.

"There was no smoky, backroom deal here," she said.

If won, the case would be a huge step for workers' rights groups, who have been fighting with little success to remedy the effects of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which excluded a mostly-minority farm workforce from labor protections.