Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said Tuesday that he supported collective bargaining rights for some 60,000 New York farmworkers and that the state was renouncing a loophole in federal labor laws that has left farmworkers unprotected and marginalized for more than seven decades.
His statement came hours after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint in state Supreme Court in Albany saying that preventing farmworkers from organizing was a violation of the state Constitution. The state of New York and Cuomo were named as the defendants.
But Cuomo, in a statement, said that his administration would not defend the lawsuit in court.
“Because of a flaw in the state labor relations act, farmworkers are not afforded the right to organize without fear of retaliation — which is unacceptable,” he said. “We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry. This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected.”
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the organization was now looking forward to achieving a court-ordered settlement that establishes the protections for farmworkers to organize.
The right of workers to organize is a basic protection enshrined in a federal law passed in 1935 known as the National Labor Relations Act.
But as part of a compromise to get the legislation and other key parts of the New Deal approved by Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a number of concessions.
Specifically, he needed the support of a bloc of Southern politicians. Presiding over regions whose economy was largely driven by agriculture — and whose workforce was disproportionately black — an exemption was carved into the labor act. It would not apply to farmworkers.
To this day, farmworkers are not afforded the same federal protections as other laborers under federal law.
However, in 1938, New York amended its own constitution to expand the rights of workers to collectively bargain.
An advocacy group for the farming industry, the New York Farm Bureau, said it was reviewing the lawsuit and could not comment on it specifically, but said there were reasons farmworkers should not be allowed to bargain collectively.
“The right to organize is a labor union tactic that may work in a factory setting,” the group said. “But not on a farm where the planting and harvesting of crops and the milking of cows are extremely time sensitive and weather-dependent.”