By: Michael Divers
Freedom of association protects workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. Collective bargaining is when workers negotiate with their employer over important arrangements, such as employee benefits and working conditions, with the idea that workers have more bargaining power collectively than individually.
Farmworkers have been systemically denied the right to collectively bargain and organize throughout American history. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) excluded farmworkers from the right to collective bargaining. Although this was the progressive era for workers’ rights legislation, it was also the Jim Crow law era. Consequently, farmworkers’ legal exclusion from collective bargaining was likely approved by Congress because the profession had a majority African American workforce.
New York law on the matter is in conflict. In 1937, New York passed its State Employee Relations Act (SERA), which conformed to the NLRA’s exclusion of farmworkers. The New York Constitution, passed in 1938, states that there exists a right to organize and bargain collectively. Yet, New York has continued to deny farmworkers their right to associate and bargain with employers.
Despite SERA clearly violating the plain language of New York’s Constitution and international criticism of the exclusion, the conflict has now become a matter for the court. Recently, Crispin Hernandez, a former worker at a New York dairy farm, and two workers advocacy groups brought a suit against the state of New York to address this injustice on the state level. Hernandez was fired from his job for attempting to organize the workers to address working conditions at his farm. Because of the farmworker exclusion in SERA, he had no available remedy for this harm.
Governor Cuomo and Attorney General Schneiderman declined to defend the suit, agreeing that there is a fundamental right to collectively bargain. Instead, the New York Farm Bureau is defending the case on behalf of New York.
The right to organize and collectively bargain is a fundamental right that has been recognized almost universally. Hernandez’s suit should correct this injustice, and hopefully either the remaining U.S. states will follow, or Congress will make a change on the national level.