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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. 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.

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