Rural Democrats against Farm Bill

Democrats representing rural areas of New York state have come out against the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

The officers and board of the Democratic Rural Conference of New York state passed a resolution opposing passage of the act as it is currently constituted.

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act includes allowing for collective bargaining with the ability for farmworkers to strike at any time, including at times throughout the growing and harvest seasons or when animals need to be cared for. It also would require overtime on farms, not only above a 40-hour work week, but also any hours beyond an eight-hour day. Farm Credit East estimates the bill will increase labor costs, on average, by 17 percent or nearly $300 million statewide.

“We applaud the goals of this legislation,” said Judith Hunter of Livingston County and chair of the Democratic Rural Conference. “We support collective bargaining for farm laborers and understand that it is required under a recent court ruling. However, the bill as it is currently written simply does not adequately reflect the reality of agriculture in New York state, which is in a particularly precarious position this year. We hope that the laudable goals of this legislation can be accomplished through the budget process next year, when protections for farm workers can be combined with incentives and support for farmers that will help the entire agricultural sector. We can find common ground here.”

The legislation has been proposed before, but advocates seized on this year as the first opportunity for passage after Democrats took control of the state Senate in November’s elections. The court ruling Hunter referenced was a ruling by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany in late May in a case filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from his job as a dairy worker in Lowville when his boss saw him meeting after work with human rights organizers and co-workers to discuss workplace conditions. When the case was filed in 2016, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined to defend the state’s position, calling the labor law carve-out unconstitutional. The state Farm Bureau, which represents farmers, then intervened to defend the law.

The Farm Bureau said it will appeal to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. “We are extremely disappointed in the majority’s decision and the breadth of its ruling,” Farm Bureau President David Fisher said.

Legislation that would repeal the 80-year-old law has been debated for years in the state Legislature. Farm workers and their allies are more hopeful this year after Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate, giving them control of the entire Legislature and the governor’s office. But farmworkers and their supporters argue that the nation’s top agricultural state, California, already allows farmworkers to unionize and the farm industry remains robust.

“California is often mentioned as a state that implemented legislation similar to the FFLPA with no ill effects, but farmers in California usually don’t have to deal with the weather conditions that can make agriculture so time-sensitive in rural New York. New York farms are also smaller, and many are family owned,” Hunter continued. “Any eventual legislation should protect our farmworkers, clearly, but it should also protect our farmers. They are unable to pass on higher production costs by charging higher prices, because those prices are set by market forces beyond their control. Already, dairy farmers find themselves getting less for their milk than it costs them to produce. New York agriculture also must be supported as it works to become more competitive, more sustainable, and more resilient in the face of climate change. Our rural economy depends on agriculture, and we are concerned that agriculture be able to recover from its current difficulties stronger than ever.”

The Democratic Rural Conference was founded in 1996 to represent Democrats in counties in New York with populations of 250,000 or less (47 of New York’s 62 counties).