Farm Bureau seeks to intervene in NYCLU farmworker lawsuit

The New York Farm Bureau is attempting to mount a legal defense in a lawsuit that the New York Civil Liberties Union has brought against New York state that seeks to give farmworkers the right to collectively bargain.

The Farm Bureau, New York’s largest agricultural industry advocacy group, announced during a conference call Monday that it has retained the law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King to represent the group in a bid to join the lawsuit. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said last month they would not fight the legal action, as they too consider the law denying farmworkers labor organizing rights to be in direct conflict with a provision of the state constitution’s bill of rights.

Dean Norton, the New York Farm Bureau president, said the decision to submit a petition to intervene in Albany County court came after careful consideration and consultation with the organization’s board of directors.

“We cannot sit idly by and allow this lawsuit to happen without anyone standing up for the farm owners, farmworkers and agricultural folks in New York,” Norton said.

The lawsuit claims that the state Employment Relations Act, passed before the state constitutional convention of 1938 where the pertinent section of the bill of rights was adopted, is in direct opposition of the state bill of rights, which guarantees all employees the right to organize.

Several recent developments – the lawsuit, a state increase in the minimum wage – have upset farmers who contend that the state’s burdensome regulatory environment, combined with natural disadvantages, continue to hinder their ability to compete with nearby agricultural states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where there are lower labor costs and fewer regulations.

“We are taking this step today to defend farmers,” Norton said. “Many feel they’ve been abandoned by the governor, as well as by our attorney general, as they refuse to defend a long established state law.”

Brian Butler, an attorney representing the Farm Bureau, said the group believes there is a precedent showing that excluded employee classes can exist with the constitutional provision, particularly because the law granting the exemptions predates that language in the bill of rights, which does not address the excluded work classes.

For the exclusions to be dropped, the law should be amended or a new law should be passed at the Capitol, Butler added.

“We believe the legal precedent is clear, that this is not a question for the courts to answer, that this a question for the Legislature,” he said.

Advocates and legislators for years have pushed the Farmworker Fair Labor Practice Act, a bill that would give farmworkers the right to organize, guarantee overtime and promise a 24-hour rest period each week, but it has been repeatedly blocked from coming to the floor for a vote in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Representatives of the NYCLU have said that they brought the legal action in part because they had grown frustrated with the repeated failure to address the issues in the Legislature.

Erin Beth Harrist, the lead attorney on the suit for the NYCLU, said in an email that her organization will continue its suit, despite the push back from the Farm Bureau.

“The governor and state attorney general both agree that the exclusion of farmworkers from the right to organize is a clear and undeniable injustice,” Harrist said. “We reject the farm bureau’s continued assertions that this holdover policy from Jim Crowe (sic) has any place in New York today.”

Cuomo’s office has defended the decision to not fight the suit, often pointing to the many tax incentives and other state programs designed to help farmers stay competitive while also protecting the rights of workers.

Abbey Fashouer, a Cuomo administration spokesperson, reiterated that point in an email, saying the governor is committed to helping the state’s farm industry grow.

“There is absolutely no reason that these employees should be excluded from the legal and protected right to organize without retaliation that is afforded to all other workers in this state,” Fashouer said. “As we have said previously, we will not defend this seemingly unconstitutional act in court.”

Schneiderman’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Note: This story has been updated with comments from the Cuomo administration and the NYCLU.