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Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, meets with farm owners at Ideal Dairy in Hudson Falls recently to discuss issues related to the farm labor law. 

The right to join a labor union is not a constitutional right, according to New York Appellate Division Justice Stan Pritzker of Hartford, who cast the only dissenting vote in an appeals court decision that says farm workers have the right to labor protections like bargaining collectively.

“I find that the right to organize and bargain collectively is not a fundamental right in the constitutional sense. … Fundamental rights are those deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition,” Pritzker wrote in his dissenting opinion. “They include the right to marry, the right to have children ... . Fundamental rights also include the right to vote, the right to travel, the right of free speech and the right of a criminal defendant to appeal.”

On Thursday, a panel of New York Supreme Court Appellate Division judges reversed a lower court decision that had granted the New York Farm Bureau’s motion to dismiss the case of a western New York dairy farm worker who was fired after joining a labor union.

In the majority decision, supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James, the judges declared that the state constitution grants all workers, including farm laborers, certain rights like organizing or bargaining collectively. Additionally, the majority said that the farm worker exclusion is unconstitutional.

In 2016, the case of Crispin Hernandez v. the State of New York and the New York Farm Bureau challenged the constitutionality of the State Employment Relations Act exclusion of farm workers from the definition of “employee.”

Conversely, the Farm Bureau said the existing law should stay because it is constitutional.

And local Farm Bureau representative Jay Skellie, who is also the Jackson supervisor, said the Farm Bureau will fight Thursday’s decision to a higher court.

“We need to know whether or not the law will allow a strike,” said Skellie, adding that some states have added anti-strike clauses to their labor laws.

Skellie said that because farming is dependent on weather and deals with crops and live animals, a work stoppage could be catastrophic.

According to Mike Bittel, president of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce, farmers want to make sure farm workers are safe and well treated, but the court is comparing collective bargaining to First Amendment rights like free speech.

“The chamber is working with local elected officials and lawmakers in Albany to make sure farms are viable for a long time to come,” said Bittel. “Area farmers offer fantastic job opportunities, and they have one of the highest safety records.”

Following Thursday’s decision, the Farm Bureau said in a release that the majority decision was far-reaching by saying the right to join a union was a fundamental right.

According to the Farm Bureau, Pritzger’s dissenting opinion “exposed the flaws in the majority’s ruling and identified that the decision eliminates Farm Bureau’s right to defend the constitutionality of the statute in trial court.”

Thursday’s controversial decision comes in the middle of the state Assembly and Senate consideration of the 2019 Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a farm labor bill currently in committee.

The bill, if passed, would grant farm workers the right to join a union and collect overtime pay after eight hours.

“This bill, as it stands, would certainly drive many farms out of business,” Bittel said. “Farmers are already struggling in New York state, as it ranks No. 1 in the most expensive states to farm (land, labor costs, insurance). This bill would drive many farms out of business with the escalating mandated costs.”

Hebron farmer and town Supervisor Brian Campbell said, under the language of the bill, farm workers could strike at any time, and that could be a problem.

“We don’t know where this is headed,” he said. “The bigger issue is, this could lead toward total mechanization on farms. They have robots that can milk cows and tractors that drive themself. We will have to see where this goes.”

Still, the farm labor bill has been gaining momentum recently, with farm worker activist groups like Farm Worker Justice protesting farm work rights in Albany and other parts of the state.

“We’re a large producer, and I think this regulation doesn’t have significant implications for us,” said John Dickinson about the family-owned dairy, Ideal Dairy Farms in Hudson Falls. Ideal currently has about 2,500 cows and 30 full-time employees.

“But it is a considerable change for small producers. They are not structured to handle these changes,” said Dickinson, adding that a work-stoppage would be terrible if they could not get all their cows milked. “It’s not like a factory. If they go on strike, you can’t turn the lights off until the strike ends. Living creatures have to be cared for daily. If workers go on strike, are farmers going to be able to get animals fed, cleaned, milked? I worry about the animal, too.”

During its May meeting, the Washington County Board of Supervisors voted in opposition to the farm labor law.

“Although I am a firm believer in collective bargaining, this bill is in committee and I don’t think it’s ready to be passed until more work is done on the bill,” said Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman before the May vote. “I am opposed to it in the form it is in right now.”

Local lawmakers, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said last week they are opposed to the bill as it currently stands.

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Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli covers Washington County government and other county news and events.

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