A section of New York state law that prohibits farm workers from organizing and collectively bargaining with their employers violates a section of the state constitution, an appellate court in Albany ruled Thursday.
A panel of judges said in the decision that farm workers cannot be excluded from a decades-old amendment of the state constitution that grants employees certain workers rights, like forming or joining a union to handle labor disputes.
The ruling has the potential to add steam to a proposal being considered by the state Legislature that would codify into statute the right for farm workers to organize. The bill has yet to be approved by state lawmakers.
The New York Farm Bureau, an organization that represents the state’s farmers, had argued in the litigation that state law explicitly does not allow farm workers to organize. The group said they’re planning to appeal the decision to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
“We believe that the majority’s conclusion is unsupportable and disregards decades of precedent,” said David Fisher, president of the Farm Bureau. “New York Farm Bureau fully intends to appeal the court’s ill-conceived ruling.”
The lawsuit was originally brought against the state of New York three years ago by former farm worker Crispin Hernandez, the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York. They were represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which cheered the decision Thursday.
“The court’s ruling today was unequivocal that denying farmworkers basic labor rights is flat-out unconstitutional, and farmworkers, like other workers, have the right to organize,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of NYCLU. “The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables have the right to be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker.”
The litigation took a twist when the attorney general’s office decided not to defend the constitutionality of the law and instead joined the plaintiffs in arguing that it should be struck down.
The New York Farm Bureau, which represents farmers across the state, then moved to intervene in the litigation as an affected party. The lawsuit essentially then was between the organization and the plaintiffs, who by then had teamed up with the state.
The Farm Bureau was represented by Brian Butler, a member at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, called the decision Thursday “a victory” for farmworkers. He supports the legislation that would codify the option for farmworkers to organize into state law.
“This is a victory for some of the most vulnerable members of New York’s workforce,” Cuomo said. “From the beginning, we chose not to defend against this lawsuit because farmworkers never should have been denied the same basic rights as other workers and we believed this to not only be morally wrong, but also unconstitutional.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James also applauded the decision Thursday in a joint press release with Cuomo.
“This ruling asserts that farmworkers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law. My office will always fight for the hardworking people in this state, and their fundamental rights to organize, access workplace protections, and receive fair wages for a fair day’s work.”
The appellate court’s ruling was actually a reversal from a decision by the trial court, which had granted a motion by the Farm Bureau to throw out the litigation. Both the plaintiffs and the state had appealed that decision.
Justice Christine Clark wrote in the Appellate Division, Third Department’s decision Thursday that they disagreed with the trial court’s interpretation of the law, and therefore declared it unconstitutional.
“When the term ‘employees’ is given its natural and ordinary meaning, we think it clear that the constitutional right to organize and collectively bargain extends to individuals employed as farm laborers,” Clark wrote.
The Court of Appeals is not required to hear an appeal on the case and could reject the Farm Bureau’s attempt to have it reviewed by the high court. If the state Legislature doesn’t change the law this year, the Court of Appeals would make the final call on the statute’s constitutionality.
The Farm Bureau warned against the Legislature changing the law, saying it would harm the economy. The appellate ruling Thursday essentially does what the bill in question would do, but the decision could ultimately be reversed by the Court of Appeals.
“If the legislature, and now the courts do not recognize the value of preserving a viable and economically sustainable food production system in the state, New York agriculture will continue to shrink under a mountain of mandates,” Fisher said. “Our rural economy and local job opportunities will suffer.”
The Legislature is scheduled to conclude this year’s legislative session and leave Albany for the year June 19.