Labor Issues
May 13, 2013

Activists fight for farmworkers at the Capitol

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
activists at the Capitol
Caption: L-R: Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan; United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta; Sen. Neil Breslin; Assemblywoman Gabriela Rosa; and human rights defender Librada Paz. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Another apple, another story.

This time of year the apple trees are stunning. Delicate, paper-like pink flowers crown the crooked branches in a halo of soft color.

Once the blossoms drop, it is time for farm workers to sort out the branches of the apple trees to make more room for the apples to receive the sun, and to make sure the apples do not get bruised, said Maria Fuerte, a farmworker. Next, it is time to pluck weeds from around the base of the apple trees.

“You’re literally on your knees going from one tree to another,” said Ruth Faircloth, a former farmworker, now 61, working for Rural and Migrant Ministry, and using a cane. The job is important, she said, because otherwise the weeds will eat up the tree and make the apples bad – with worms in them.

All of the jobs are important to get food from fields and farms to the table. But in New York, it seems, it is the farmworkers who are not considered so important. That’s what the law shows, at any rate. They do not get a day off from their labor, they do not get unemployment, they are not eligible for workers compensation and they do not have the right to collectively bargain.

“A day off a week would’ve been wonderful. You just assume it’s not for you,” said Faircloth.

Lawmakers today said hope is on the horizon. They believe the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act — which would provide those just conditions for farmworkers — may finally be approved. After all, a similar law was enacted in California in 1975 – how far behind can New York be?

“I would hope the Senate would realize this is a matter of human rights,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-NY, at a press conference today at the Capitol.

Senator Neil Breslin, D-Albany, who said he has supported the Act for 17 years, said the Democrats have struggled to get the Act passed for so many years. Big farm owners have convinced opponents they will not be able to make money if the legislation is approved, Breslin said.

He is hopeful for change.

“There is extraordinary momentum,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights who has traveled to Albany numerous times, especially this year, on behalf of the Act. Today she wore a red “Farmworkers’ Justice” bandana around her neck.

“I don’t know a small farmer against this bill,” said Jack Manning, owner of a small farm in Dutchess County.

Like others who spoke, Manning said it was the big agri-business companies opposing the rights of farmworkers.

Behind the ink of the law is the abuse and toll the tough working conditions take on the farmworkers. Librada Paz, who last year won the RFK Human Rights award, broke down sobbing at the microphone.

“I have been abused in so many ways,” she said, her face suddenly crumbling. She began working farms at age 15, moving all over the country to follow the crops and the jobs, living in sub-standard, crowded housing with her colleagues. She then went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering technology at RIT.

A poised speaker familiar with talking to legislators and leaders, Paz seemed to surprise herself with the force of her emotion.

“I was so ashamed, I couldn’t even tell my brother,” she said, wiping away tears. “We need collective bargaining. ” Farmworkers are afraid to speak up because of the fear, she said. Losing a job means losing housing as well.

Standing proudly beside her was Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez. A former teacher, she said today that she left the profession to become an organizer for farm workers after seeing so many children of farmworkers coming to school malnourished and worn down.