A New York farmworker was fired for organizing. State Supreme Court says that’s legal

It would have been a shoo-in case for farmworkers' rights. Then the Farm Bureau stepped in.

New York’s Albany County Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to include farmworkers in an 80-year-old law that protects workers’ rights to organize. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) plans to appeal the decision.

The lawsuit, which we first reported on in September of 2016, was filed on behalf of plaintiff Crispin Hernandez, a dairy farm employee who said he was fired after being seen meeting with other workers to organize for better working conditions. Hernandez, the Workers’ Center of Central New York, and the Worker Justice Center of New York were represented by the NYCLU in court.

The NYCLU initially filed against the state of New York, but Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration declined to defend the case, signaling that it agreed with the plaintiff. It would’ve meant an automatic win for Hernandez and the NYCLU, except for one thing—the New York Farm Bureau stepped in to defend the case instead of the government.

The NYCLU argued that the exclusion of farmworkers from fair labor laws at both the federal and state levels is a relic of a racist Jim Crow-era policy.
The Farm Bureau, which represents farmers (in this case, the employers), argued that farm work doesn’t conform to the 8-hour workday. “A farmworker strike or confining work agreements could jeopardize a crop or the health of an animal,” New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher wrote in a post on the Bureau’s website. The bureau also argued that the state legislature should be in charge of changing the law, not the courts.

For its part, the NYCLU argued that the exclusion of farmworkers from fair labor laws at both the federal and state levels is a relic of a racist Jim Crow-era policy, the product of a compromise between Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and southern Democrats (known as the “Dixiecrats”) in order to pass the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA was a landmark national legislation passed in 1935 that protected employees’ rights to form unions. At the time, most people who worked on farms and in households as domestic servants were black. To win the southern vote, those two groups—farmworkers and domestic workers (housekeepers, cooks, nannies)—were explicitly written out of the law.

State Supreme Court Justice Richard McNally sided with the Farm Bureau, agreeing that changes to the state’s labor laws should be decided by the legislature, not the courts, the Albany Times Union reports. He added that the NYCLU failed to demonstrate that elements of the state’s fair labor laws are discriminatory, or that farmworkers are entitled to constitutional protections.

“Because of an outdated law, the people we rely on for the food in our kitchens are condemned to poverty, abuse and even death,” said the NYCLU’s lead counsel on the case, Erin Beth Harrist, in a press release. “We will appeal this ruling and continue to fight this law, which violates our constitution and our state’s commitment to human rights.”

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.