The rights of farm workers to organize and form unions exploded into national prominence in the 1970s, as thousands of workers walked out on lettuce and grape growers during the Salad Bowl Strike in California, leading to a landmark 1975 labor reform bill in that state.
Efforts to bring more protections to farm workers here in New York State have been going on for years, with various iterations of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act being taken up by the State Legislature.
This year, during the current legislative session that ends June 19, passage of the bill seems closer than ever. That would be a mistake unless some provisions are taken out that could drive many of New York’s family farms into economic ruin.
The law would mandate that workers be paid overtime if they work past eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. According to analysis by Farm Credit East that was reported by the New York Farm Bureau, the overtime requirements would increase labor costs on the state’s farms by 17 percent, or $299 million statewide.
The bill would allow for collective bargaining and give farmworkers the ability to strike. That could cripple farms at harvest time, when what they reap is what they can sell. If a strike shuts down a family farm, the farm will go out of business and provide no paychecks for anyone.
Farming is a tough business, but New York’s family farms persist.
The most recent available census data for New York – from 2017 – showed a 6 percent drop from 2012 in the number of farms statewide. The total was 33,438 farms.
“This is the largest drop in more than two decades and is triple the national average of a 3-percent loss,” New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said in April.
For many of their crops, farmers don’t get to set the sales prices, which are regulated by the government. Dairy farmers, for example, do not find out how much they get paid for their milk until weeks after they send it to market. That means farmers usually cannot pass on added labor costs to their customers.
For many farms, the bill is trying to fix things that aren’t broken. Federal regulations covering guest workers set parameters for the quality and upkeep of their housing. And upstate farms may pay their workers above minimum wage, anyway, knowing the workers could abandon them and find work elsewhere if their jobs don’t pay enough.
Another element of the bill would mandate a certain number of rest days for the workers each week, a provision many of the farm hands object to. A worker who travels here from Florida, Mexico or elsewhere to harvest apples or tend to livestock in New York is frequently looking to make every dollar he or she can in a limited time.
The seasonal aspect of farming, which demands that farmers squeeze everything they can out of a limited harvest season, makes the proposed labor law – however well-intentioned – a threat to drive our family farms into the ground and out of business.
To be sure, there have been times when farm workers were misused, here and around the country. But the state needs to better focus its efforts.
New York farmers are willing to compromise on these issues. Albany must similarly be prepared to find a middle ground.