The New York Farm Bureau is stepping into a legal fight over whether farm workers can be allowed to unionize.
The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the state of New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo over a law that forbids collective bargaining for farm workers. Governor Cuomo says he will not fight the suit, which is one reason why the New York Farm Bureau is asking the court to allow it to intervene on behalf of farmers.
Kendra Lamb is a dairy producer in western New York. For her, it’s more than an occupation--it's a passion.
“It’s a family legacy. My entire family is in dairy farming. I really believe in what we do,” says Lamb, who farms in Oakfield, N.Y.
While rewarding, dairy farming is also an industry that’s going through a variety of challenges, from too much milk to declining prices, but Lamb says labor and regulations are top of mind. “We’re really struggling with a consistent labor supply and also with some of the regulations and things that are coming at us in the government in New York state,” says Lamb.
The labor issue in particular has become a hot issue, with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) suing the state of New York, saying that the state's refusal to let farm workers unionize is unconstitutional. Governor Andrew Cuomo has refused to fight the lawsuit, which has left dairy farmers feeling angry and abandoned.
“We feel a lot of anger from within the industry, because we feel we do a really good job taking care of our workers. We don’t feel there is a need for farm workers to have to unionize,” says Tonya Van Slyke, executive director of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association.
The NYCLU disagrees. "Enough is enough," the organization said in a written statement. "Farm workers, who we depend on to put food on our tables, deserve no less dignity and humanity than any other hardworking New Yorker.”
The lawsuit was filed by the NYCLU on behalf of a farm worker who was fired from his job at the dairy farm after discussing working conditions with other employees after his shift. The lawsuit claims he worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and was forced to go without medical care after getting injured.
A proposed bill, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, is moving its way through the New York legislature. The bill could require one day of rest a week, ensure an overtime rate of time and a half, and grant collective bargaining rights to farm workers.
“There’s a push for overtime pay and also unionization of dairy farm workers. Those are going to make it hard for us to do business. We are price takers. We don’t get to choose how we get paid for our milk,” says dairy farmer Lamb.
Twelve states allow collective bargaining and four states in the U.S. have overtime provisions for farm workers.
Northeast Dairy Producers Association's Van Slyke says farmers offer good wages, good benefits packages and a place to work. Sometimes that includes housing as well as other bonuses. “Our concern is that our workers won’t really understand what collective bargaining really means. It will be an added expense to them to join a labor union. Then, we’re not sure what kind of benefit that will bring to them,” says Van Slyke.
Farm Credit East in New York says farmers there already paying workers above-average wages. According to its February 2016 Knowledge Exchange Report, New York farmers paid $14.20 to farm workers for every $100 of production sold. That's higher than the U.S. average of $8.50.
Those in the agricultural Industry say a stable labor force is critical. “From the dairy perspective, our concern is that our cows need to be cared for (at all times). Animal health is a priority on all of our farms. If we don’t have workers to care for our cows or milk our cows, then we have an animal health issues,” says Van Slyke.
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