FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

A Farmworkers Bill of Rights

Passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices, also being called the Farmworkers Bill of Rights, by the New York State Legislature at its recent session was among its most notable achievements this year.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law on July 16th declaring: “This new law is not just a great achievement in terms of the effect on the human condition, it’s also a milestone in the crusade for social justice. By signing this bill into law, 100,000 farmers and their families will have better lives and will finally have the same protections that other workers have enjoyed for over 80 years.”

The law will take effect on the start of the new year.

The treatment of farmworkers has been a huge scandal in the United States.

Involved has been the area in which I live, in Suffolk County which covers the eastern portion of Long Island. Suffolk has been and continues to be a leading agricultural county in New York State.

Farmworkers—many of them migrant farmworkers lured by phony promises—have been excluded from basic laws in the U.S. among them those on housing and work. The New York legislation will give them rights including overtime pay, voting to unionize, having at least one day off a week and receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

“Today is the culmination of a decades-long fight centered upon one simple premise: that farmworkers deserve fairness, equality and justice,” said New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento upon legislative passage of the measure.

State Senator Jessica Ramos of Elmurst, Queens, who sponsored the bill and chairs the Senate’s Labor Committee, said upon Cuomo signing it that “today we are recognizing farmworkers as the backbone of New York’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry and acknowledging the dignity in their work.”

The legislation has, she said, “lingered” in the New York State Senate “for 20 years, with seven sponsors on both sides of the aisle. I am proud…to be the eighth and last sponsor of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. I have traveled to seven counties in New York, visited 14 farms, talked to countless farmworkers, and held three hearings on this bill….Farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York.”

The governor signed the bill at the offices of the New York Daily News which crusaded for its enaction.

Every semester in my four decades of teaching an Environmental Journalism class at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury I show the students Edward R. Murrow’s TV documentary, “Harvest of Shame” about the plight of farmworkers broadcast on CBS in 1960.

“We present this report on Thanksgiving because were it not for the labor of the people you are going to meet, you might not starve, but your table would not be laden with the luxuries that we have all come to regard as essential,” declared Murrow, the preeminent U.S. broadcast journalist of his era, standing in a farm field. “They are the migrants, workers in the sweatshops of the soil—the harvest of shame,” says Murrow. They are “the forgotten people.”

The documentary—which can be viewed on YouTube—leaves students shocked. Their jaws drop as they hear farmworkers who believed the promises of crew leaders who recruited them to harvest crops, are charged for all sorts of things and become indebted, trapped in migrant farm work. The housing and work conditions shown are outrageous.

Shown, too, are the terrible journeys. “Produce en route to the tables of America by trailer is refrigerated to prevent bruising,” says Murrow. “Cattle carried to market, by federal regulation, must be watered, fed and rested for five hours every 24 hours. People—men, women and children—are carried to the fields…in journeys as long as four days and three nights. They often ride ten hours without stopping for food or facilities.”

A minister, Rev. Michael Cassidy, who travels with migrant farmworkers trying to help them, says: “Only in name they are not a slave. But in the way they are treated, they are worse than slaves.”

My students are appalled to hear a farmer declare: “I guess they got a little gypsy in their blood. They just like it. Lot of ‘em wouldn’t do anything else. Lot of ‘em don’t know anything different. They don’t have a worry in the world. They’re happier than we are. Today they eat. Tomorrow they don’t worry about. They’re the happiest race of people on Earth.”

Suffolk County figures in “Harvest of Shame.” As a journalist based on Long Island since 1962, I’ve gotten my lumps on the farmworker story. Then New York State Assemblyman Andrew Stein of Manhattan inspected migrant farmworker camps in Suffolk in 1971. He was pressing for protections for them under state law.

“The conditions here are feudal,” said Mr. Stein as noted in an article in The New York Times by David Andelman, now a CNN commentator and author. “People live like indentured servants. This is not the kind of thing we want to have in New York State.”

The article continued: “At the first camp Mr. Stein visited here, the assemblyman, his party and accompanying newsmen were driven from the camp by a man the police said was the owner, William Chudiak. Mr. Stein was speaking with a migrant worker when Mr. Chudiak drove up in a pick-up truck. He grabbed a camera belonging to Karl H. Grossman, a reporter for the Long Island Press, and pushed and struck him.” (The Cutchogue camp was featured in “Harvest of Shame.”)

My students find it hard to believe that the outrageous conditions in “Harvest of Shame” continue. I present more recent journalism. On the 50th anniversary of “Harvest of Shame,” CBS correspondent Byron Pitts did a follow-up and, as The Atlantic noted, what he saw “was the same ugly dynamic that had existed during Murrow’s visits, the same cycle of brutal work, deplorable conditions…”

Murrow’s broadcast ended with his saying: “The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruits and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”

I moderated a program on Long Island television with Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers union, when he visited Suffolk in 1992. He emphasized the need for broad action to end the nightmare for farmworkers.

Decades later, the New York State action is great and important but national action, by the U.S. government and other state governments, is called for—and critically needed.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, commented on the signing of the state bill that itsets right 80 years of wrongs done by a racist, Jim Crow-era laws that denied farmworkers basic rights. Farmworkers have toiled for too long in dangerous conditions, vulnerable to exploitation. The NYCLU is proud to stand today with the governor and legislative leaders to ensure farmworkers have the right to organize, a day of rest, overtime pay, and more. These protections come at an important moment for immigrant farmworkers. As President Trump does all he can to advance his agenda of cruelty, our state is showing that all New Yorkers are worthy of respect, dignity, and rights.”

Cuomo also hit on the latter point at the signing. He commented: “This powerful and practical achievement is even more significant in the era of President Trump who continually diminishes workers’ rights, attacks labor unions, disrespects the disenfranchised and has made divide and conquer, rather than unify and grow, the credo of America.”

Farmworkers—all over the United States—must be granted rights just as any other worker in the U.S. That’s long, long overdue.

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-Holds Are Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail