Farmworkers on the March for Fair Pay

farm workers 01 Valerie Cotsalas

A 26-year-old farmworker from the North Fork wore oversize aviator-style sunglasses on a cold and wet mid-May day, mostly to conceal his face. He stood next to another farmworker from Mattituck, a 63-year-old in a gray sweatshirt with the hood up, the hem just above his glasses, his rough puffy hands jammed inside his pockets.

Both had come after work on a Sunday to join supporters at the start of a 200-mile march from Smithtown to Albany, snaking through Brooklyn and Manhattan, to demand passage of a bill called the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The bill would extend rights to farmworkers long given to other workers in New York, including one day a week of rest, overtime pay and the right to organize and collectively bargain with employers.

The 26-year-old, who asked to be identified by a first name, Antonio, works 10 to 11 hours each day, Monday through Saturday, and at least half as much on Sunday from March through December, he said.

He lives in worker housing provided by his employer, a tree and plant nursery on the North Fork. The living arrangements are crowded—10 adults, some related, living in a two-bedroom house. But the workers live free of charge, including heat and electricity.

“That’s why we don’t feel we can complain,”Antonio says of the free lodgings, even when the water pump stops working and there is no water for days, or when melting snows leak through the roof. He is paid $9.50 an hour. Aside from one worker who has worked there more than 20 years, no one gets a raise, he says.

farm workers 02 Valerie Cotsalas

Thousands of farmworkers on Long Island like Antonio are often out of sight when they work on the acres of farmland spread out behind bountiful produce stands, vineyard tasting rooms and well-kept farmhouses with wraparound porches.

The varying conditions under which they work and live are directly related to the absence of laws regulating farmwork. More than 70 years ago, farmworkers were excluded from New Deal federal labor laws that defined minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor regulations and other rights for all workers.

In the 1930s, most agricultural workers were African-American, and Southern Democrats “felt very strongly that they didn’t want their workers included in the labor laws,” says Margaret Gray, associate professor of political science at Adelphi University and author of Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, which is based on her 10-year study of New York State farmworkers and farmers. “This is essentially Jim Crow that established all these exclusionary laws.”

New York State laws passed decades later followed the federal example and excluded farmworkers. The exclusion applies to all farmworkers, whether citizens or immigrants of any status.

Many other states have changed course. César Chávez famously secured extensive protections for California farmworkers in the 1960s. Other states that have laws giving farmworkers overtime pay include Colorado, Hawaii and Minnesota. At least 10 states have laws that give farmworkers the right to organize.

“Those are fundamental rights recognized by international law, and farmworkers should not be excluded,” says Adrienne DerVartanian, the director of immigration and labor rights at Farmworker Justice, an advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.

But on Long Island’s affluent East End, the high cost of living complicates the issue further for farmworker and farmer.

Antonio waits up to an hour to catch the bus to the laundromat, where the cost of a single wash load is $4.25. Many farmworkers like him must find a ride or take a bus to Riverhead to shop for groceries at affordable prices, according to the Rev. Gerardo Romo Garcia, an Episcopal minister appointed to the East End to assist immigrant workers.

On the other side of the issue, farmers’ profits depend upon many unpredictable factors, including weather conditions, the fluctuating price of gas, and supply and demand. Farming is seasonal, some say, and overtime pay would be too big a burden.

“If there are three days of soaking rain predicted, the farmer has to be able to say to workers, ‘We have to harvest extra tonight before the storm comes and ruins the crops in the field,’” says Robert Carpenter, the administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau in Riverhead, explaining how overtime pay would cut into a farmer’s ability to hedge for changing factors. The farm bureau represents farmers’ interests.

The same argument applies to collective bargaining and organizing, Carpenter adds.

“Farmers have a very specific window to harvest crops,” he says. “If [workers] strike for three weeks during the harvest, the farm will be devastated.”

But productive farming states like California and at least nine others that extend the right to organize to farmworkers seem to have figured it out.

DerVartanian pointed out that farmworkers generally live on the margins of poverty, and so a decision to strike, and lose their pay, “is not one they take lightly.”

Underscoring the power imbalance of farmer to farmworker, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in May against New York State on behalf of an upstate dairy farmworker who was fired when he met with organizers on his own time. The governor said he would not fight the lawsuit, opening the door to a ruling on collective bargaining for farmworkers.

The lawsuit “gave us hope that farmworkers will have collective bargaining, though it will still take a long time going through the courts,” says Nathan Berger, the Long Island coordinator for Rural & Migrant Ministry, the New York State farmworker organization that organized the march.

On the steps of the capitol building in Albany on June 1, farmworkers and their supporters called on Gov. Cuomo to push the farmworker rights bill to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the legislative session on June 15.

Supporters say the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is too long in coming.

“Farmworkers are not from another world,” says Rev. Romo Garcia, the Episcopal minister.  “They need the same rights because they live in the same world; they are human beings like the others.”

For Antonio, the 26-year-old Cutchogue farmworker, daily injuries trouble him, especially what he calls “denigration.” If he makes a mistake, for example, his boss chides him for being from El Salvador, he says.

Some of his work among the thousands of plants and herbs of different varieties includes weeding, unloading hundreds of plants from pallets, putting on and removing protective plant coverings from long rows of metal hoops and filling orders with a tractor.

He has two breaks during the day: one in the morning to eat breakfast and another in the afternoon. He punches a clock to record his time at work.

After three years at his job, Antonio sees little chance to leave what little security he has.

“Right now, I’m the only one helping my family in El Salvador,” where his parents and three siblings live in poverty, he says. Among the rights he most covets is one day of rest.

“I mean, just a day off,” Antonio says. “At this company, it is required that you work seven days a week.”