migrant workers

DECADES IN THE MAKING: Boosters of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act expect the landmark measure to be signed into law shortly by Governor Cuomo.

In the waning hours of the legislative session, New York State lawmakers approved the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The landmark measure ends decades of their exclusion from basic labor protections extended to other American workers 80 years ago as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

The legislation, which Governor Cuomo said he was looking forward to signing, was the result of intense negotiations involving the Assembly, the Senate and the Governor's office.

The vote was 40 to 23 in the Senate and 84 to 51 in the Assembly.

"Today is the culmination of a decades-long fight centered upon one simple premise: that farmworkers deserve fairness, equality and justice," State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement.

Got Bargaining Rights

Under the terms of the compromise, confirmed by State Sen. Jessica Ramos, chair of the Senate Labor Committee, the state agricultural workers would get collective-bargaining rights and be entitled to one day of rest, and union organizers would be granted access to workers. 

But the bill’s initial requirement that overtime be paid after 40 hours was watered down and replaced with a 60-hour threshold. The agricultural lobby also won a prohibition against strikes by farmworkers.

"The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has lingered in this body for 20 years, with seven sponsors on both sides of the aisle. I am proud today to be the eighth and last sponsor of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” Ms. Ramos said in an email to this newspaper. “I have traveled to seven counties in New York, visited 14 farms, talked to countless farmworkers, and held three hearings on this bill.”

She continued, “There are 80-100,000 farmworkers that are the backbone of New York's multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry. Today we are correcting a historic injustice, a remnant of Jim Crow-era laws, to affirm that those farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York." 

Called OT Plan Draining

Before the middle ground was found, the New York Farm Bureau warned that the overtime provisions would increase labor costs by close to $300 million a year, and as a consequence lead to a projected 23-percent drop in net farm income.

“Farm Credit East, a credible financial organization that works directly with farmers, analyzed economic data and determined overtime on a 40-hour work week and beyond an eight-hour day will increase labor costs on farms by $299 million or more than 17%,” the trade group warned.

The farmworker cause has been championed by Assembly Member Cathy Nolan for 20 years. She told Politico after the deal had been struck that advocates had been stymied for years because “farm workers were excluded through the National Labor Relations Act” but that the state bill “broke through” by delivering agricultural workers bargaining rights. 

The measure, long a standing priority for the State AFL-CIO, got an infusion of energy when Democrats took control of the State Senate in January and the newly elected Ms. Ramos assumed the chair of the Labor Committee.

At an unrelated press conference June 17, Mr. Cuomo told reporters that his “fingers were crossed” that the legislature could pass the bill.

A Dad’s Dilemma

“My daughters, who were with me on Father’s Day, have been showing up since I was Attorney General” at “the state capital to protest for the Farmworkers, and it was difficult being the Governor and having your daughters protesting  that you were not able to pass the Farmworkers bill,” he said. “It would give me great joy if we could actually get it done this year.” 

Last month advocates of the Farmworker legislation got a well-timed boost from the  Appellate Division of State Supreme Court when by a 4-to-1 vote, justices reversed a lower-court ruling that farm workers were excluded from New York’s collective-bargaining protections.

New York State will now join a handful of states that have codified farmworker labor protections, including California, where in the 1960s the movement originated under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta.

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