NY farmers furious with Cuomo on minimum wage, collective bargaining

NY farmers furious with Cuomo on minimum wage, collective bargaining

NY farmers furious with Cuomo on minimum wage, collective bargaining
May 16, 2016

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to back down on a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union seeking to give farmworkers the right to organize is drawing fierce criticism from farmers, the advocacy groups that represent them in Albany and legislators.

Farmers, who were also highly critical of the passage of a minimum wage hike pushed by Cuomo, say they feel like the governor’s office has put their already distressed industry in a position that may force many farms to shut down.

Jim Bittner, the owner of Singer Farms in the Niagara County town of Appleton, said that the combination of paying a higher minimum wage and giving farm laborers the right to organize will work to put New York farmers, who are already overburdened with higher taxes and more regulations, at a greater disadvantage to nearby agricultural states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“I really think that in the long run, because we are going so far ahead of these other states, we’re going to get clobbered,” Bittner said. “The administration was looking at this to raise people out of poverty. Well, that’s just fine, but there’s fewer jobs.”

Last week, in response to statements from Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman saying they would not fight the lawsuit, the state’s largest farmer advocacy organization, the New York Farm Bureau, and upstate Republican senators, including Western New York’s Rob Ortt, responded by bashing the decision.

“This lawsuit is nothing more than politically-driven theater from New York City radicals,” Ortt said in a statement. “Anyone who knows anything about farming, or about New York State north of the Bronx or East of Queens, knows how vital agriculture is to our economy and to our communities. And, they know a measure such as this would be the final nail in the coffin for many of our small family farms and result in dramatic price increases for nearly all of our foods.”

In the days since, the Cuomo administration has issued several press releases announcing programs designed to assist the agricultural industry.

Abbey Fashouer, an administration spokeswoman, said in an email that the governor’s office believes workers’ rights can be protected while also promoting a healthy agricultural economy. Fashouer pointed to several state programs and initiatives that the state is engaged in to work toward those goals, including investments on farms for environmental stewardship, protecting the right to farm, fair real property taxation and promotion of locally grown products.

In addition, the state has committed $30 million for agricultural research, education promotion and development, $50 million to agriculture projects in the Southern Tier and Hudson Valley, $26 million to farmland protection and $350,000 for the FreshConnect farmers market program, she said.

“It defies common sense that these employees would be intentionally excluded from the legal and protected right to organize without fear of retaliation, which is afforded to other workers in New York,” Fashouer said. “We will not defend this seemingly unconstitutional act in court.”

While the attorney general is required to represent the state when the constitutionality of a law is challenged, and the office can -- and typically does -- defend the challenged law as constitutional, the law does not suggest that the state’s attorney must defend a law his or her office finds to be unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed by the NYCLU against the state on behalf of two farmworkers who were fired after meeting with labor organizers. Now that the state is not contesting the lawsuit, the farm named in the NYCLU’s lawsuit, the New York Farm Bureau or other groups may be able to petition the court to become an aggrieved party, or could file separate lawsuits, in an effort to mount a court battle, but it is unclear if that will happen at this point.

Steve Ammerman, a spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said in an email late last week that the organization was weighing its legal options and was not ready to comment on whether it will try to fight the decision in court.

The NYCLU has for years supported state legislation that would give farm workers the right to organize, as well as making it mandatory that they be paid overtime and are given the option of taking off one day a week without being fired or otherwise retaliated against.

The bill, called the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, has passed in the Assembly multiple times, but it has failed to make it to the floor of the state Senate, where many members of the Republican majority represent rural areas.

Erin Harrist, lead counsel on the suit for the NYCLU, said the organization was done waiting for the legislation to pass and felt the need to take action.

“Our attitude was enough is enough at this point,” Harrist said. “From our perspective, this was a clear constitutional violation to exclude farmworkers from the right to organize.”

While the right to organize for all workers is guaranteed in the state’s bill of rights, the state’s Employment Relations Act excludes farmworkers, among other labor classes, as exempt from being defined as employees, effectively denying them those same rights.

“It’s clearly stated in our New York state Constitution’s bill of rights that employees shall have the right to organize and there’s no exceptions to that right,” Harrist said.

The NYCLU will soon meet with the Cuomo administration and attorney general’s office to resolve the matter, she said.

“We hope to meet a mutual resolution somewhat quickly so that we can make sure farmworkers’ rights are protected,” Harrist said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has failed to make it to the floor of the state Senate for a vote.

Justin Sondel
is a freelance reporter in Buffalo.
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