June 06, 2016

Fighting for farm workers at the Capitol

Author: Michael Flemming
Source: NYSUT Communications
farm workers rally
Caption: NYSUT intern Michael Flemming (center, pink shirt) at last week's rally for farm workers. Photo by Marty Kerins, Jr.

Last week, I attended a rally at the Capitol in Albany for farm workers demanding justice and fairness for their labor. The rally began at St. Vincent's Church, about 1.5 miles from the Capitol, where demonstrators marched the streets with picket signs and voiced their demands.

The theme of this rally was "Walk a Mile In My Shoes," which was suitable because the march started on May 15 in Smithtown on Long Island, about 200 miles from Capitol, and ended in Albany on June 1, with the rally to demand justice and fairness. The demonstrators included activists, students, church groups and union members.

I was able to speak with one of these rally members, a man named Hasan, who marched from Long Island, and said that this rally was very important to him. He said that he worked construction, under the table, and knows what it's like to be taken advantage of by an employer. He believes everyone should be paid fairly for their work and he knows what it's like to not get paid appropriately. He added that because farm workers do not have union representation, their employers are exploiting them. Almost all other professions have unions and can collectively bargain, however, this hasn't been possible for farm workers.

'As humans, how can we morally let such a vast population of people work and live in such horrible conditions?' 

This rally was a very unique experience for me. The realization that hundreds of people needed to come together and march 200 miles, just for them to receive normal working conditions and rights, seemed ridiculous. As they marched they carried and raised signs that read "Justice for workers," or "NY farm workers deserve equality" and "Pass the farm workers bill," in hopes that they will be heard and there will be change. Which is what I found most difficult to understand. In such an advanced society as the U.S., where information is widespread so quickly, how is it possible for these circumstances to still even be possible? Are they heard and ignored? If so, as humans, how can we morally let such a vast population of people work and live in such horrible conditions

Today's farm workers are exposed to seven-day workweeks, child labor, non-livable wages, no overtime and crowded living conditions, to name a few. This 200-mile march aimed to change that, however, with the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act.

Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, spoke at the rally on behalf of the farm workers, insisting that they stand together and there is no greater power than that. He said that, although legislatures will try to defeat the farm workers, the farm workers have been heard and they will not falter. In addition, he said the farm workers deserve the same rights as all other workers and they deserve days off. "This is about fairness, equality and doing for those who do the most. It is about being a human being and helping each other," Cilento concluded.

Michael Flemming, a student at SUNY Brockport, is an intern in NYSUT's Communications department.