Interfaith supporters of farmworkers rally in Albany

By Lynette Wilson
Posted May 22, 2012

Rural & Migrant Ministry organized an interfaith delegation of more than 100 civil rights advocates, clergy and farmworkers from across New York state to spend "Farmworker Day" in Albany on May 21. ENS photo/Lynette Wilson

[Episcopal News Service] Fifteen years ago Rural & Migrant Ministry began advocating for New York’s farmworkers with the goal that the state’s labor laws be modified to extend basic labor rights and protections to the men and women who work in the fields, the orchards and the food-processing plants that comprise the state’s $3 to 4 billion agricultural sector.

On May 21, RMM organized an interfaith delegation of more than 100 civil rights advocates, clergy and farmworkers from across the state – some traveling more than four hours one way by bus – to descend on Albany for “Farmworker Day,” to once again to ask legislators – mainly senators – to pass the Farmworkers Fair Labor Act. If passed, the law would grant farmworkers a day of rest, overtime pay and workers’ compensation, collective bargaining rights, and would extend public health sanitary codes to migrant worker’s camps.

“I am proud to be here today on Farmworker Day to help bring to the attention of our legislative leaders that this is a basic human right, to be treated with equality in terms of wages and other opportunities that other labor groups have,” said Rochester Bishop Prince Singh in an interview with ENS in Albany.

“But it also to me, as a person of faith and a leader in a faith community, brings to the fore the reality that we need to treat people who bring food to us, to our tables, with some clarity of dignity. All we are asking that they are provided with the same opportunities that other labor groups have.”

In March New York’s Episcopal bishops met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and during that meeting made it clear that they supported equal rights for farmworkers, Singh said.

Since the 1930s, farmworkers have been excluded from both federal and state laws that protect other labors. Legislators have repeatedly introduced legislation to assure agricultural workers these rights during the past 15 years. In 2010 the bill failed by four votes in the New York Senate; the New York Assembly has historically passed the bill.

“Every year it passes in the Assembly and gets stalled in the Senate,” said the Rev. Michael Phillips, rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan, who rode the bus from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the capitol. “It’s an issue of justice: Why deny farmworkers labor rights?”

There are an estimated 80,000 farmworkers in the state and some 35,000 farms. Latinos comprise 78 percent of all farmworkers and 99 percent of farmworkers are foreign born, according to the Hudson Valley Farmworker Report published in 2007.

Phillips, who coordinated the groups from Manhattan and New Paltz, where on its way north the bus stopped to pick up additional people, warned that while speaking with legislators and/or their aides that the supporters not allow the conversation to be steered toward immigration.

“This is a labor, not an immigration issue … don’t be tempted to go down that rabbit hole,” he said, “There are undocumented workers in the field, but there are also American citizens and legal workers in the field. This is about their rights.

“Legally or illegally, they are doing the work.”

The Rev. Winnie Varghese, of St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, and Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, during the May 21 march to the capitol. ENS photo/Lynette Wilson

Members of the delegation gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church for an orientation, followed by a march to the capitol, visits to the offices of legislators — both opponents and supporters — and held silent vigils during which they held orange signs with black letters that read “Farmworkers Deserve Equal Rights.” Singh and other leaders, farmworkers and elected officials took part in a press conference organized by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“The New York Civil Liberties Union is proud to stand with labor, human rights, religious and political leaders to call on the New York State legislature to correct an 80-year-old wrong and finally pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. Eighty years ago, when the New Deal established major reforms to worker’s rights, farm workers were excluded because back then farmworkers were black and that’s the deal that southern segregationists insisted on to support reform. Today New York’s farmworkers are overwhelmingly Latino, but for them Jim Crow is still the law of the land when it comes to their labor rights,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU’s executive director during the press conference.

“… Jim Crow was wrong then, it’s wrong now and it’s time to close the gap for basic worker protections … it’s time to ensure that the people who do the back-breaking work to putting food on our tables enjoy the basic protections and basic dignity that every individual working in New York state deserves and expects,” she said.

At the start of the press conference, the Rev. Richard Witt, RMM’s longtime executive director and a priest in the Diocese of New York, placed a bushel of apples on the table next to the speaker’s podium. The bushel, he said, weighed 48 pounds. Apple pickers typically pick up to 168 bushels in an eight- to-10 hour workday.

Sostenes Uribe speaking during the press conference. ENS photo/Lynette Wilson

“It’s a heavy job but we are proud to do it because we need this for our lives,” said Sostenes Uribe, a farmworker and an American citizen, who injured himself picking apples and was subsequently fired from his job. “I come here in the name of all the farmworkers to raise the voice to pass the farmworkers bill.”

Uribe, who spoke in Spanish through an interpreter during the press conference, said farmworkers often feel they go unnoticed and that he participated in the event to help raise their voices.

Peggy Alt and her husband, Wayne Alt, a member of the United Church of Christ and a past RMM board member, traveled with the bus from Buffalo to Albany to participate in the day’s events.

Despite the fact that consumers have become more conscious about food quality and the distance it has traveled, it’s been a slow process to bring consumers around to care about farmworker’s rights, said Peggy Alt, adding that part of the reason is that farmworkers tend to work behind the scenes.

To draw attention to farmworker and their rights, RMM over the years has held marches across the state, marched from Harlem to Albany, held round-the-clock vigils in front of the capitol, performed street theater, and enlisted celebrities and mariachi bands to call attention to farmworker injustice.

“We’ve tried every single way we can figure to just get attention,” said Witt, adding that once a year a delegation visits Albany, but that advocacy work continues at the local level throughout the year.

“The thing that really captures it for me is that when we lost by four votes in the Senate two years ago, one of our youth looked at me when I was feeling really down and she said, ‘Well you know Moses was in the desert 40 years. Get over it.’ So it’s one of these things we just keep putting one foot in front of the other figuring that something is going to happen.”

Progress has been made, however, over the years, Witt continued.

Ten years ago, Witt said, legislators wouldn’t give RMM the time of day. “Now we are meeting with the majority leaders, prominent senators … so the voice of the farmworkers is getting more and more included — it’s just not being honored yet. And one of that ways you know that it’s getting more and more included is that you see the Farm Bureau and agribusiness stepping up their efforts to combat it.”

The Business Council of New York State and the New York Farm Bureau — which according to its website “is a non-governmental, volunteer organization financed and controlled by member families for the purpose of solving economic and public policy issues challenging the agricultural industry” — are on record in opposition to the bill.

“The agricultural workforce is a crucial part of our state workforce. Because of its unique nature, this workforce in this industry was exempted years ago from regulations that generally apply to other groups of employees. These conditions have not changed and have become even more important due to global competition and the increase in the advantages of sourcing locally,” says a legislative memo on the Business Council’s website confirming its alliance with the Farm Bureau.

According to the Farm Bureau, 99 percent of the state’s 35,000 farms are family owned.

The argument often raised by the bill’s opponents that without the benefit of cheap labor, the smaller family farms cannot compete “is just ludicrous,” said Gerardo Gutiérrez Jr., an attorney and RMM’s Justice for Farmworker’s campaign coordinator, adding that if anything, higher costs for industrial farms allow smaller farms to compete.

Only four states – California, Maryland, Minnesota and Hawaii – and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico have laws protecting the rights of farmworkers, Gutiérrez said.

The California Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed in 1975, establishing collective bargaining rights for farmworkers. The law’s passage was largely the result of a grassroots effort led by Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American labor leader and civil right activist.

New York, by passing a law to protect the rights of farmworkers, could help break down the Farm Bureau’s argument for cheap labor and serve as an inspiration and a model for other states, said Witt.

“If you have both California and New York doing something, it’s harder to argue that by providing equality to farmworkers it’s harder to compete. California has been doing quite well with it for more than 40 years.”

— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service. She traveled with the group from Manhattan to Albany to report this story.


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Comments (9)

  1. Chris Pawelski says:

    Wow, the lies, half-truths, misinformation and distortions of fact found in this piece are extraordinary. This is not surprising because Richard Witt and his organization has been spreading lies, half-truths, misinformation and distortions of fact in connection with this issue for years now. For one thing, current law has been for years, in connection with Workers Comp, if the farm has a payroll of $1,200 in a calendar year they have to provide it and the overwhelming majority majority of farms in the state fall under this regulation and comply with the law. Witt and his organization know this, and yet still spread the falsehood that farmworkers aren’t covered.

    Here is an op-ed I wrote that ran in the Albany Times Union a couple of years ago. It highlights the misinformation as well as the hypocrisy of this issue, because what these religious groups fail to mention is that another class of groups are also exempt from some of these handful of labor law exemptions that apply to farmworkers, including overtime … wait for it … the employees of religious organizations. Why is it I don’t see the church groups and Witt lobbying to end the exemptions for their employees too?

    What did Jesus say in the Bible to the religious leaders of his day, “remove the plank from your eyes so you can more clearly see the straw in your neighbor’s eyes” or something like that? And then didn’t he call them hypocrites? I highly doubt you have the honesty and integrity to leave this comment on your blog though.

    Here is my op-ed:

    MORE REGULATIONS BAD FOR N.Y. FARMWORKERS

    Miriam Pawel once again spreads misinformation and distortions regarding legislation proposed by the self-appointed farmworkers’ advocates in her Jan. 29 commentary, “Same old politics hurts N.Y. farmworkers.”

    She asserts: “The Farm Bureau’s argument is simple: These changes will cost too much. Agriculture is seasonal work, not comparable to any other industry … . But the experience in California … belies the Farm Bureau’s doomsday scenarios.”

    Evidently, Pawel doesn’t understand what “seasonal” means. California’s growing season is far longer, essentially year round, than New York’s. A strike at planting or harvest would destroy a farm in New York, unlike in California.

    She argues that if farmers’ claims that the bill’s expensive mandates would kill agriculture were true, then “it is acceptable to exploit farmworkers and deny them basic protections afforded almost every other worker in New York.”

    More than a dozen federal, state and local agencies oversee dozens of laws and rules governing farmworkers’ living and working conditions. This makes them probably the most protected work force in New York. The five or six exemptions Pawel talks about apply to some other workers as well, including employees of religious organizations and other non-profits driving this legislation.

    Where is the concern for those “exploited” workers? The hypocrisy is astounding.

    Pawel laments that “Farmworkers can be made to labor seven days a week, for as many hours as necessary, with no overtime, in back-breaking work. They need not receive unemployment when they are laid off, or be housed in shelter that meets safety standards. Because that would be bad for business.”

    The people who travel so far up the migrant labor stream, many year after year to the same farms, come here to work as many hours as possible to provide for themselves and their families. A common complaint is that they aren’t getting enough hours.

    New York’s unemployment and overtime exemptions match the federal standard, making us competitive with neighboring states. I know of no other industry that provides free housing for its employees, except clergy.

    Agricultural labor law is crafted within the context of agriculture’s production and marketing realities. Farming does not take place in an enclosed building with a regulated environment. We have a limited time to plant and harvest.

    Farmers do not control the prices we receive and cannot pass on increased costs. We absorb it or go out of business. And because of pricing and weather disasters, much of New York’s agriculture is reeling. In four of the past five years, my farm income was below the federal poverty line for a family of four. In 2009, my employees earned more than I did.

    Where would Pawel and others like the money to come from to pay for these mandates?

    The New York Farm Bureau does not give large campaign contributions as Pawel intimates. In fact, one of the biggest contributors here is New York State United Teachers, a union that aggressively supports this legislation.

    It’s unlikely that elected officials have been motivated by the paltry amounts farmers contribute. They are more likely taking positions based on the merits of our arguments regarding this bill. We are pleased that more of them are seeing through the propaganda and misinformation, and understand just how harmful this legislation would be.

    No one forces a person to work on a farm. If someone wants the benefits associated with factory work, they are welcome to work in a factory. But to attempt to apply the rules associated with factory work to agriculture is foolish, if not dangerous, public policy.

    Enact these provisions and you will see less locally produced food in our markets and a severely impacted upstate economy.

    Chris Pawelski is a fourth-generation onion farmer in Orange County and a member of the New York Farm Bureau’s labor task force.

  2. Chris Pawelski says:

    This op-ed appeared in HV Biz has a bit more detail:

    Don’t apply factory work rules to farmworkers
    Christopher Pawelski | Feb 12, 2010 |

    There is a bill before the state Legislature titled “The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act” (S. 2247-B; A. 1867-A). There is a great deal of misinformation surrounding this bill as well as the issue of agricultural labor. Allow me to address a few of these issues.

    The primary proponent of this bill is a religious nonprofit organization called Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM). The ministry acts as a self-appointed farmworker advocate organization because the overwhelming majority of farmworkers in New York state have neither elected nor chosen this organization or its designated leaders to represent them or speak on their behalf. Farmworkers do not attend their board or planning meetings and the handful that attend RMM’s annual Albany lobby day event are paid by RMM to be there. These facts were admitted by RMM Executive Director Rev. Richard Witt during his sworn testimony before the state Lobby Commission in 2001.

    RMM and its allies consistently claim that there are virtually no laws protecting farmworkers and they are “invisible” and ignored by society. The truth is there are roughly a dozen local, state and federal governmental agencies that enforce a plethora of laws that govern both the living and the working conditions of farmworkers in the state.

    Some of these laws, like the federal Migrant and Seasonal Protection Act (MSPA) only apply to farmworkers. Farmworkers are one of if not the most protected work force in the state. New York farmworkers earn, on average, more than $10 an hour. Most also receive free housing and all that it entails, including heat, electric and utilities. Many receive free cable or satellite television. Farmworkers in the state also benefit from a number of governmentally funded social-service programs that, in many cases, only exist for their benefit, including their own free government-funded health clinics, free day-care centers for their children (now 14 throughout the state) free child and adult migrant education programs, as well as their own free government-funded law firm which works only in their behalf. How does a farmworker compare with an urban resident working on the same wage tier when it comes to protections and programs?

    What we are talking about are five or six exemptions to state labor law. These exemptions, like the one for overtime pay, exist because of the production and marketing realities associated with farming. Farming does not take place in an enclosed building with a regulated environment. We have a limited time to plant and harvest. If overtime is enacted, farmers will have to cut hours during the growing season so as to afford the overtime at planting and harvest time which can’t be avoided. This may mean fewer overall hours and take home pay for farmworkers. And farmers do not control the prices we receive and cannot pass on increased costs. We absorb it or go out of business. Because of pricing and weather disasters, much of New York’s agriculture is reeling. In four of the past five years, my farm income was below the federal poverty line for a family of four. In 2009, my employees earned more than I did. Where would these self-appointed advocates and legislators who support them like the money to come from to pay for these mandates?

    I have no problem defending each and every one of the exemptions within the real world context of agriculture’s production and marketing realities. But I can’t, because the self-appointed advocates’ mantra is that these exemptions are “immoral” and “unjust.” They state that “there can be no justification for this unequal treatment. Attempts at justification of this exclusion are offensive.” Who assigned these organizations the authority to decide which exemptions are “just?” And many of these same exemptions that apply to farmworkers, like overtime pay, also apply to the employees of nonprofits and religious organizations. Yes, the very same organizations that are pointing their fingers at agriculture can legally “exclude” their own workers from receiving overtime. State legislative staffers also are exempt. Yes, the people who work for the people who want to end our exemption are exempt from overtime. The level of hypocrisy is astounding and they don’t have a leg to stand on to play the “moral” card.

    A number of farms in Orange County have switched from mono-cropping onions to growing a variety of vegetables. These farms supply the local farmers’ markets and the green markets in New York City. To grow those vegetables they have had to rely on a much bigger labor force than needed for the more mechanized onion farming. End the overtime exemption and they will be unable to afford their labor bill. They will go back to mono-cropping onions, if they can continue to farm at all. New York state’s unemployment and overtime exemptions for agriculture match the federal standard, making us competitive with neighboring states. If overtime is enacted you can kiss that local fresh produce goodbye as New York farmers will be unable to compete with New Jersey or Pennsylvania farmers who don’t have to pay it. And many farmworkers will lose their jobs. That will be the real world consequences of this legislation.

    The people who travel so far up the migrant labor stream, many year after year to the same farms, come here to work as many hours as possible to provide for themselves and their families back home. If the self-appointed advocates ever actually talked to farmworkers they would learn a common complaint is they aren’t receiving enough hours versus working too many. No one forces a person to work on a farm. If someone wants the benefits associated with factory work, they are welcome to work in a factory. But to attempt to apply the rules associated with factory work to agriculture is foolish public policy. Enactment of this legislation will undoubtedly lead to less locally produced food for our markets and a severely impacted upstate economy that is already hurting considerably.

    Christopher Pawelski is a fourth generation onion farmer in Orange County and is a member of the New York Farm Bureau’s labor task force. He can be reached at evep@warwick.net.

  3. Jennifer Linman says:

    I am grateful for the witness of Rural and Migrant Ministry, and for all who went to Albany on Monday to advocate for justice for farmworkers. It is hard for every employer to balance fair pay and benefits with keeping costs low and producing affordable products, but we must treat people as children of God rather than machines, widgets, or simply viewing them as expendable.

  4. Thank you ENS for a well researched story on the plight of farm workers in NY State. As one colleague we met Monday pointed out, if NJ has these provisions in place, why can’t NY?

    I am so grateful for the witness of RMM in representing the stated position of the Episcopal Diocese’s of the state of New York in Albany. As a small not for profit supported by Episcopal congregations they are doing heroic work in opposing one of the most powerful lobby’s in Albany, the Farm Bureau, which can afford to have people like Mr. Pawelski comment regularly on every article which addresses this issue in the state of New York. The Farm Bureau is the primary obstacle to passing this bill, even though it seems that many of our Senators, as people of faith, agree with justice for farm workers in principle. The witness of the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic people on this issue has historically been powerful, and we hope the faith of Roman Catholic legislators will be made manifest when this bill comes to the floor.

    We have all witnessed the horrific conditions that farmworkers work and live in here in New York. Their desperation should not be our excuse to overlook their exploitation. We pray for the day when the good labor laws on New York State, of which we can be enormously proud, are applied to all who work in New York.

    And to Mr. Pawelski’s point about the church not being subject to labor laws. That is true, and we have many, many internal guiding principals established by our General Convention that direct us to create just work environments. Many of our churches pay no one but the priest, if that, so I’m not sure it’s a useful comparison to compare a parish church to a corporate farm subsidized by the state of New York.

    Thank you ENS for telling a story that is rarely told. If you want to support the cause and meet some of the inspiring leadership of RMM, please visit their website at ruralmigrantministries.org

  5. Richard Leon says:

    I believe good farmers are good businessmen and we really need not worry too much about the giant corporations that grow our pesticide injected crops. Its just so ridiculous to claim that there is any good reason to exempt one class of worker from the protections that all other classes enjoy. If a farmer cannot afford to pay overtime he should consider another line of work and let a more competent individual take over. Also let’s stop pretending that the farm bureau represents some poor farmer in overalls, in this day of corporation plutocracy this is laughable. These are suits taking advantage of the poor migrant workers who suffer miserable conditions and should be allowed to bargain in good faith, be guaranteed one day off a week, job safety and get disability insurance. Every other worker enjoys these benefits and if it’s ok in New Jersey it should be just fine in NY. Wake up folks! These guys are going to erode your wages with inflation next. They want to take your social security, medicare, medicaid and any benefit they came get their greedy hands on. They hate our government and they want our taxes, and they never pay their share! So if you don’t stand up for the weakest members of our society you weaken the foundations of the whole country. Please visit ruralmigrantministries.org and just do the right thing. What would Christ do?

  6. Roger Walters says:

    The Farm Bureau argument against farm workers rights is the classic scare-tactic forever used to justify the exploitation of human labor. What is especially galling is that this is happening in 2012 and in New York! Are the citizens of this state going to continue to allow this injustice to exist? Isn’t it worth the dignity of our fellow human beings to know that the food we buy is providing a fair living for the people who labor in the fields?

    And to compare the labor situation in religious institutions with farms is laughable. Religious institutions have none of the same motivations, i.e. profit- motives, at play in which to abuse its workers rights willfully. Perhaps the farm industry would voluntarily improve the conditions for its workers because it is the right thing and do so to avoid the legislation? Are we foolish enough to believe that will ever happen?

  7. Frank Morales says:

    Sisters and Brothers,
    My father, who came from Puerto Rico when he was 18, was for a brief period of time a farm laborer. He used to tell me stories about the sub-standard “housing” and other amenities that employers provided him and his fellow workers in order to keep them close and extract as much from them as they could. Bottom line: If maintaining exploitive, racist and unequal labor systems is the only means through which farming folks can make ends meet; well then, they and their workers ought to get together and create a new system, one in which farm workers are no longer exempt from the protections and benefits that other workers receive. We simply must support those who “give us our daily bread.”

  8. Fr. Stephen Chinlund says:

    The Church, and all of us, are much blessed by the patient persistent ministry of Fr. Richard Witt, for decades. If California and New Jersey can live with the sort of legislation now being proposed, New York certainly can also. Arguments raised by the opposition seem without merit when we face the hardships of our migrant farm workers. Even small improvements in wages and living conditions would mean a lot to them. It is time finally to pass the legislation which almost passed last year. Jesus said, “In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” It is time, New York State, to protect our workers.!

  9. Chris Pawelski says:

    Jennifer Linman said:

    “I am grateful for the witness of Rural and Migrant Ministry, and for all who went to Albany on Monday to advocate for justice for farmworkers. It is hard for every employer to balance fair pay and benefits with keeping costs low and producing affordable products, but we must treat people as children of God rather than machines, widgets, or simply viewing them as expendable.”

    That’s typical Richard Witt/RMM rhetoric and tactics. I, and my fellow farmers do not view our employees as “machines, widgets, or simply viewing them as expendable.” I can’t tell you how offensive that is. Just like when Witt in the past would call us “slave owners” and would throw out the “slavery” line. It is extremely offensive. And it is a false dichotomy. If you don’t agree with his or your position you are “immoral” and/or “unjust” and you must view your workers as “machines, widgets, or expendable.” It is scurrilous and outrageous and false.

    First off, I don’t cede the moral ground to you. Since you don’t want to apply these exemptions to your employees and your industry you don’t have a moral leg to stand on, certainly not to stand on some sort of perch and dictate who is and isn’t moral or determine what part of our laws or codes are or aren’t “moral” or “just.” Second, you offend church going farmers when you employ that sort of rhetoric. Witt has been doing it for years but let me tell you something farmers in rural communities have had enough of it. They will put up with a lot but they are sick and tired of it and they have had enough and pretty soon, priests and clergy, it’s going to start hitting you where it hurts, in the collection box.

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