New York State Farm Workers’ March for Justice

by Jim Schmidt

On Thanksgiving Eve, 1960, TV commentator Edward R. Morrow shocked the nation with his close-up look at agriculture in the United States and the harsh treatment of the farm workers who toil in the fields and harvest the crops. Forty three years later social change advocates, religious and labor leaders and farm workers marched 330 miles in New York State to call attention to the plight of migrant and seasonal farm workers living and working in New York State.

Agriculture in New York State is big business, grossing billions of dollars per year. The heart of this industry is the 80,000 plus farm workers. In New York, farm laborers are excluded from most protective labor laws that other workers enjoy. Farm workers are not entitled to a day of rest and do not receive overtime pay even when they work 60 to 80 hours per week. They aren’t covered by disability insurance. Few have unemployment insurance. They are denied the right to engage in collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a fundamental right non-farm workers enjoy when and if they decide to unionize. Farm workers’ average income for a family of four is well below the poverty guidelines; their housing is substandard; their average work week is 60 hours; and violence and abuse are common.

For twenty years a movement has slowly developed uniting farm workers with social change advocates and progressive religious and labor leaders. All call for the state legislature to remove the restrictions in labor law that prevent farm workers from having the same rights as non-farm workers. For seven years people have been mobilizing to march on Albany each May, but the State Senate has refused to act on legislation, passed in the Assembly, that would remove these restrictions. Assemblywoman Kathy Nolan has been the leading force in the Assembly for the passing of a bill that would satisfy the farm workers’ demands. Senator Joe Bruno bottled up the legislation in committee. Senator Bruno and Senator Nancy L. Hoffman conducted statewide hearings in 2001 to examine the charges raised by the farm worker movement. They promised action and a report. Two years later nothing has happened and no report has been issued.

Since the State Senate refused to act on protective legislation, the movement marched yet again to call public attention to the situation. On April 21, 2003 a group of marchers left Seneca Falls for a ten day, 180 mile march to Albany. The organizers chose the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls as the starting point because it is the site of the 1848 women’s rights convention. The day before, another group of marchers left New York City for the 150-mile trip to Albany.

Five hundred took part in the April 30 rally in Albany when the two groups met. Dolores Huerta, founding member of the United Farmworkers (UFW) in California, and an honoree of the Women’s Rights Hall of Fame, praised the marchers for their support and determination. Denis Hughes of the State Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, pledged the full support of the labor movement to work for economic and social justice for farm workers and the removal of all restrictions in labor law.
The march is over but the struggle continues. The Farm Worker’s Fair Practice Act is pending in the Senate (Bill No. S5557). Senator Bruno is being pressured by voters from across the State to bring the issue out of committee. A growing number of Republican Senators have endorsed the bill. As the list of endorsers grows, and the number of people across the state supporting the legislation increases, Senator Bruno will be pressured to act.

Ask your NewYork State Senator to support this legislation.

Jim Schmidt is Executive Director of Farmworker Legal Services of New York, based in Rochester,