Jun 12, 2009
New York Labor Bill May Die in Senate Turmoil

A bill that would extend to seasonal and other farm workers rights to time-and-a-half overtime pay, a full day off every week, freedom to form unions and other benefits may have been derailed in the New York State Senate as an unintended consequence of a power struggle that flip-flopped control of that body.

This turn of events, unfolding like a new surprise in an old soap opera, has apparently killed momentum on the Farm Worker Fair Labor Practices Act, which seemed close to passage, and shifted attention to a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which may now come up for a vote.

Peter Gregg, a media spokesperson for both the New York Apple Association and the New York Farm Bureau, said the farm worker legislation has passed the New York Assembly several times in past years, but has never passed the state senate. In elections last fall, Democrats gained control of the Senate for the first time in 30 years, and that seemed to enhance the bill’s chances.

The new Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Malcolm Smith, was a proponent of the farm worker legislation and was pushing for its passage. It was very close to coming up for a floor vote, having passed out of the Senate’s labor committee in early June. Then, two dissident New York City Democratic senators decided to shift their allegiance to the Republican Party, ousting Smith and flip-flopping the Senate balance to 32-30 in the other direction.

The Republicans immediately sought to reorganize the leadership structure in the Senate, but as of June 10 couldn’t get keys to the Senate chambers!

The New York legislature, which does not meet continuously, was scheduled to end its work June 22, and the last two weeks were expected to end with votes on some 30 bills. Instead, it has devolved into a leadership fight to which there was no sure outcome.

Gregg said that legislators in New York City really have no dog in this fight” over farm worker overtime pay and the other provisions of the legislation, but “they have been given the image of farm workers as indentured servants by special interest groups.”

In rural upstate New York, senators of both parties – including the three Democrats – are united in opposition to the farm worker legislation, Gregg said. The issue has been divisive in New York on a rural upstate vs. urban downstate basis, rather than by political party.

Chris Pawelski is a Goshen, N.Y., onion grower who has done battle over this issue for several years. Articulate and vocal, he confronts the “do-gooders” who, he says, haven’t a clue about what farming and farm work is about.

In most states, except in places like California, farm work is either seasonal, as in the produce business, or every day, as in the dairy business, where cows don’t take Sunday off. Workers work when the work is there.

“Farm work is dependent on the seasons and on the weather,” Pawelski said. “It’s not like factory work.”

New York Farm Bureau estimates this bill would cost New York farmers $200 million a year if it became law – and would do more damage besides. Since farmers couldn’t pass on overtime wage costs, they would be inclined to hire more workers and limit their hours – and that would dry up the stream of seasonal workers coming to New York.

“They want to work as much as possible,” Pawelski said.

The law, he said, would have the opposite of its intended effect.

Pawelski is appalled by the hypocrisy surrounding the issue. Church groups have been primary promoters of the legislation – even though staff members of churches are not covered by the overtime provisions of the law they seek for farm workers. The same is true of the staffs of the legislators who support the legislation and the legislators themselves.

“When I talk to them about this, they use the same arguments farmers use for why they don’t get paid overtime,” he said.

He is also appalled by the blatant lobbying efforts of churches and 501(c)3 charitable and educational organizations that are specifically prohibited by law from lobbying, in return for their tax-exempt treatment under tax codes. The Rural and Migrant Ministry, led by Executive Director Richard Witt, is one such group, and is the key organization cementing some 130 churches and other organizations into a powerful lobby for the legislation under the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign.

The campaign lists on its Web site the names of labor unions and churches and church organizations that support it.

Jordan Wells, an employee of the Rural and Migrant Ministry and a coordinator for the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, said he was “still optimistic” that the bill might pass, but the confusion in the New York State Senate had clearly muddied the waters.

“The bill has passed the Assembly several times, and it was always close but never passing in the Senate,” he said. “Things were falling into place this year.”

The groups supporting the legislation have unified around a mythology that goes like this:

“Injustice for farm workers was enshrined into law over 70 years ago, when the New Deal was enacted. President Franklin Roosevelt proposed wage and hour protections for both industrial and agricultural workers, but Southern segregationists objected to putting farm workers, who were mostly African American, on an equal footing with white workers. As a result, farm workers fell victim to bias and political expediency and were left out of the New Deal and subsequent labor and employment protections. New York has perpetuated this injustice by explicitly excluding farm workers from the definition of employees.”

That’s from the Web site www.justiceforfarmworkers.org, but the same “history” can be found in New York City newspaper editorials.

The New York Times, in an editorial using very similar words, said,
“That inequality is a perverse holdover from the Jim Crow era.”

That argument fails to explain why other broad classes of workers – including firemen, seamen, air carrier employees, elected and appointed public officials, commissioned salesmen, casual laborers, people who “live where they work or sleep,” volunteers for church groups and newspaper vendors – are also routinely excluded from rules governing overtime pay.

–Dick Lehnert






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