June 10, 2016

Unions Next for New York?

 |  By: Meg Gaige

You couldn’t blame the New York dairy industry if it feels like the universe is piling on: low milk prices; labor shortages; stalled immigration reform; legislative proposals seeking overtime pay and 40-hour work-week limits; and a 66% hike in the state’s $9 minimum wage. In addition, in early May, a state Supreme Court complaint was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) supporting farmworkers’ rights to organize.

“I have a knot in my stomach,” says producer Maureen Torrey of Elba, N.Y. “[This suit] has the potential to change the face of New York agriculture.” Governor Andrew Cuomo says the state won’t fight the lawsuit, paving the way for both sides to hammer out a court supervised agreement.

According to Robert Smith, senior vice president at Farm Credit East, a hike in the New York minimum wage would likely cut net farm income 32% to 51%. At issue is a Depression-era exemption to the National Labor Relations Act that puts its protections beyond the reach of farmworkers, who were particularly important to the Southern lawmakers with whom President Franklin Roosevelt needed to compromise to pass his New Deal legislation.

“Because of an 80-year-old outdated law, poverty, fatalities and legally-sanctioned discrimination are a way of life for tens of thousands of people working in New York,” says NYCLU’s Erin Beth Harrist. New York statistics show farmworkers there average $28,010 a year, compared with the overall state average of $41,650.

Dairy groups have begun to speak out against Cuomo’s position on the topic. “We are deeply disappointed in the governor’s response,” says Tonya VanSlyke, executive director of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA). NEDPA and several other farm groups sent letters of concern to Richard Ball, New York Commissioner of Agriculture: “NEDPA members do not tolerate abuse of workers or animals in their care. Farm owners and their families work alongside our workers.” Torrey adds: “People making these accusations fail to see the bond between us and our workers. We are so emotionally invested with our workers, our land and our cows.”

Four other states in the U.S. have overtime provisions for farm workers, and 12 states allow collective bargaining, according to Tom Maloney, senior Extension associate at Cornell University. He and Farm Credit’s Smith agree as the cost of production continues to rise, New York dairy businesses are already looking out of state for alternatives. Other options include switching away from labor-intensive ag enterprises or transitioning to part-time farming to avoid hiring labor. Meanwhile, a new team has suited up to support New York farms in this fight. The Agricultural Workforce Development Council is a cross-commodity group initiated by NEDPA that will work with the state in order to find solutions for labor-related issues.