Lost among the wave of high-profile progressive legislation that came out of Albany this year was a historic new law that gained relatively little attention. After years of attempts, lawmakers passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which gives farmworkers the right to unionize, earn overtime pay, and qualify for unemployment insurance, among other provisions. It is a long-awaited, much-sought-after extension of protections to laborers in one of the country’s leading agricultural states.
But neither farmworkers nor their employers are particularly happy with the final law. Opposition came from business groups, Republican lawmakers, and the state Farm Bureau, which claimed the bill would cripple a declining industry already dealing with labor shortages and falling prices exacerbated by US trade disputes, and ultimately force farms in the state to close or move elsewhere.
“This measure does not create a path that will assure an economically viable New York agriculture industry,” Grow NY Farms, a coalition of agricultural groups across the state, including the Farm Bureau, said in a statement.
The main dispute concerned overtime pay. Opponents of the bill claimed it did not account for the fact that the growing season lasts only a few months nor that hours are dictated by weather conditions. A few months before the bill passed, the Farm Bureau highlighted a report by Farm Credit East that “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%.”
It was countered a few months later by a study from the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute that found farmworkers would see a pay boost of $34 to $95 per week. “While farm owners would face added costs, they would also see clear benefits from increasing wages for their workers,” the study said, citing lower turnover, better morale, and higher productivity.
Workers—most of whom are immigrants—originally fought for a mandatory day of rest and time-and-a-half overtime pay after 40 hours. The bill’s original language granted just that. But after lobbying from Grow NY, the overtime threshold was raised to 60 hours and the mandatory off-day provision was removed; instead, workers have the option to take a day off, or get paid overtime if they choose to work. They can also bargain with employers about conditions and pay in exchange for no strikes, work slowdowns, or stoppages.
Proponents of the legislation, like the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations, called the law a sign of progress, if a flawed one. “What got passed was 60 hours. We understand 60 hours is a compromise,” Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York, told WAER. “[But] we’ve been working on this for 20 years. We’ve shown that workers have a voice, and they can … collectively have freedom of association and can organize.”
The Nature of Work
As a percentage, union membership is about half what it was in 1983. But across the country, workers—many from traditionally marginalized communities and/or professions—are mobilizing for better pay and working conditions. Fast food workers started the Fight for $15 movement, which is pushing to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 (it’s now the law in New York). The National Domestic Workers Alliance is fighting for basic protections and dignity for workers who care for our homes and loved ones. In California, app-based companies must now treat their workers as employees, with similar legislation being pushed in New York and other states. And two federal proposals first introduced last year aim to redefine the way workers are classified to allow more of them to unionize.
It’s easy to see how the gig economy is changing the nature of work and forcing a redefinition of labor laws. But farming is about the oldest profession we have, and the exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections is no historical accident.
We can trace the modern farmworker labor movement to the early 1960s, when organizers such as César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong all established workers’ rights groups among agricultural laborers, many of whom were migrants, on the West Coast. United Farm Workers, the organization that grew out of those efforts, remains an active labor union for farmworkers today, though its effectiveness and leadership has come into question.
In New York, wage workers were granted the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike by the state’s Employment Relations Act, drafted during the Constitutional Convention of 1938. But that law excluded agricultural workers from those same rights, a carve out that was also the result of compromise, this time on the federal level. As the NYCLU writes: “To get segregationist legislators to support his New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt explicitly carved out agricultural and domestic workers—primarily black workers at the time—from federal labor law. Subsequent state versions, including New York’s, retained this racist exclusion.”
Earlier this year, a state appellate court ruled that the exclusion was unconstitutional. The case dates back to 2016, after a farmworker named Crispin Hernandez challenged the provision, with the backing of the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York. Hernandez had been fired from his job on a dairy farm in retaliation for meeting with organizers to discuss better working conditions.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, alongside the state Attorney General’s Office, declined to defend the case “because farmworkers never should have been denied the same basic rights as other workers.” But the Farm Bureau stepped into the breach, defending the provision in court. Afterward, the organization’s president, David Fisher, said the ruling would sink New York’s agriculture industry under a “mountain of mandates.”
One month later, the legislature passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. The law will go into effect in 2021, by which point we should have a better idea if the warnings that farms will flee the state are true. The other effects of the law will take more time to measure. One thing is certain: all workers, especially the most vulnerable ones, deserve equal rights and protections. As Hernandez said at a public hearing on the bill back in April: “We are all human beings. This is why it’s important.”
Whether or not you work in the agricultural sector, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the farm labor legislation. Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments below.