The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a state law that forbids agricultural workers from organizing on behalf of a dairy farm worker who said he was fired after meeting with co-workers to discuss their working conditions.
Crispin Hernandez said workers at the farm were forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. Hernandez said workers were physically abused by the employers and denied medical treatment for injuries.
"Without agricultural workers and our labor there would not be fruits or vegetables," Hernandez said through a translator. "But we feel like we are treated as if we don't have rights, as if our lives are not important."
Hernandez's former employer, Marks Farms of Lowville, New York, said the allegations are false.
"Marks Farms is a family-owned dairy farm that makes employee health, safety and well-being a top priority," the business said in a statement.
New York's state Constitution guarantees workers the right to organize without fear of retaliation. But a decades-old state law specifically exempts farm workers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was named in the lawsuit, said his administration will not defend the state law in court because he agrees with the aim of the legal challenge.
"We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry," Cuomo said in a statement. "This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected."
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he agrees with Cuomo's position. "I've long supported the rights of farmworkers to organize. ... We're going to see if we can resolve the matter and work with the governor's office on that," he said.
A bill that would eliminate the exception for farm workers is pending before the Legislature.
New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said the allegations concerning conditions at dairy farms are "insulting." The Bureau also released a statement saying that allowing labor organizing on farms could have dire consequences.
"The right to organize is a labor union tactic that may work in a factory setting, but not on a farm," the organization said. "For a farm to lose employees to an untimely walk-off of the job could jeopardize a season's crop and place livestock health at risk."