Farm workers and allies march to improve labor rights

Poughkeepsie, N.Y. – Heriberto Gonzalez was doing nearly everything on the farm – planting, harvesting and driving the tractors – 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But he wasn’t earning enough money, so he told his boss he was leaving unless he agreed to pay him more than the minimum wage and reduce his workweek from seven to five days.

His boss refused, and Gonzalez left the vegetable farm in Orange County for Poughkeepsie. After stumbling around performing odd jobs and part-time construction gigs for most of the next two years, Gonzalez returned to the farm. His boss had changed his mind, realizing the value of Gonzalez’s wide range of skills.

“If [farmworkers] get better pay, or even overtime pay, we can work less hours and make the same money,” said Gonzalez, who migrated to the U.S. in 2009 when he was just 19 years old. “We can also have some time to do something with our children or families.”

Farmworkers in New York State are currently excluded from laws that give workers in other industries basic labor protections, including overtime pay, collective bargaining privileges and at least one mandatory day of rest each week.

Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM) has been campaigning for 20 years to pass legislation that would reverse those exclusions, according to Executive Director Richard Witt. On May 15, RMM will lead an 18-day march, called the March for Farmworker Justice, from Long Island to Albany to pressure state legislators to support the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. This bill would reinforce preexisting labor laws and provide farmworkers with additional rights, including a day of rest, the right to organize, and overtime pay for more than 40 hours worked each week.

“The idea is to bring attention to legislators and also to mobilize their constituents,” said Katia Chapman, the education coordinator for RMM. “We are not against farm owners. We are just trying to help bring farmworker voices to the table.”

Chapman says current and retired farmworkers, students, faith members, labor rights advocates and “people who believe this is the just thing” will join RMM on the march.

Farmworkers were originally excluded from basic labor protections in the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as part of the New Deal. These laws shut out farmworkers mainly for racial reasons since most of the laborers were African-Americans at the time, according to Chapman. As the demographics of the farm industry started to shift towards Hispanic and Jamaican immigrants in the 1990s, there was still little incentive among legislators to change the laws.

“We as consumers and citizens of New York should be appalled that this is happening,” said Gerardo Gutierrez, a lawyer who has provided legal counsel to RMM. “A big push has to come from the consumers because this is outrageous.”

The campaign to pass the FFLPA hasn’t been easy, according to Gutierrez. The New York Farm Bureau, an advocate for the agriculture industry, is one of the biggest lobbyists against the bill.

In 2010, the FFLPA was narrowly defeated in the New York State Senate by just three votes, the closest it has come to passing. Three years later, the bill easily made it through the State Assembly 83-53, but it didn’t even reach the Senate floor for a vote.

Democrats Frank Skartados and Didi Barett and Republican Kieran Lalor, three Poughkeepsie-area assembly members, voted against the FFLPA in 2013.

“We can’t try to apply a factory model to agriculture,” said Assemblyman Kieran Lalor (R-East Fishkill), who voted against the bill in 2013. “Much of the harvesting happens in a concentrated period of time. The crops become ripe and they have to be picked.”

Some farm owners who are already operating off slim profit margins say they won’t be able to afford the extra costs of paying their workers overtime or giving them a day of rest, especially during peak picking season.

“There’s just no other way to get the products harvested,” said Mark Adams, a farmer who grows garden plants in the Hudson Valley and sells them all over the eastern U.S. “The work can’t be spread out.”

Maria Perez used to work on an apple farm in the Hudson Valley, but found a less taxing job working with plants.

Adams, who is also the president of the Dutchess County Farm Bureau, says the FFLPA would put many farms out of business in New York State, especially when farmers in other states pay their workers a lower minimum wage. In Pennsylvania, for example, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. In New York, it is $9. New York farmers simply can’t compete with that if they are forced to pay overtime, according to Adams.

“I think it’s a lie,” said Maria Perez, who works in garden greenhouses at Adams Fairacre Farms. “I think these guys can give us these rights because business is good.”

Unless farms receive substantial financial assistance from the government, farmers are generally not required to publicly report their annual profit earnings. This makes it difficult to gauge how profitable small agricultural farms really are, but statewide data shows agriculture contributed $37.6 billion to the New York economy in 2012.

“I don’t know of any legislator that is heartless or callous and doesn’t care about the health of farm workers,” said Steve Gold, the chief of staff for Democratic New York State Assembly Member Frank Skartados. “If it can be shown that farmers can withstand the additional cost for labor and still survive, I think that it might make a difference in how an assembly member views this bill.”

Skartados voted no on the FFLPA in 2013, citing the devastating economic impact that the legislation would have on small farms.

But many farm workers believe legislators are concerned only with the economic needs of the farm owners. They often don’t acknowledge the sacrifices farm workers make, says Gonzalez.

“I didn’t want to come to the United States, but I had to for the money,” he said. “People work seven days a week because it’s the only choice they have. If I need to make money for my family, I have to work.”