Long Road to Freedom:
NYS Farmworkers March on Albany

by Laurie Todd

In May, farmworkers and allies marched through upstate NY for passage of a Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. Marchers joined the “Reclaim Our Creek, Save Our City” rally in Armory Square on May 2 (see p15).

Farmworker Celia Escamilla from Brockport, NY told a crowd in Syracuse, “I work eight to ten hours per day. I work with a desire to give a better future to my children. I’m here to ask the Senators to take us into account when making their laws.”

As he walked along, Francisco Rosario of Albion, NY, a farmworker for 20 years, remarked, “I believe in this country, I love this beautiful country. But I ask, what is going on? Why can’t we have equal rights?” That is a question for which farmworkers are demanding an answer from the NY State Senate.

NYS farmworkers brought their struggle for equal rights to thousands of people in their ten-day, 200-mile journey from Auburn to Albany.

This March for Justice was organized to foster a groundswell of grassroots support for the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (A2859/S3351), a bill that would grant farmworkers the same rights enjoyed by other workers in NY. Under current NY labor laws, farmworkers are excluded from basic workplace rights such as overtime pay, disability insurance, collective bargaining and a guaranteed day of rest. The State Assembly has already passed the legislation that would end these exclusions. The State Senate is the sticking point.

For the first time, there is significant support for the bill from the Republican majority in the Senate. But the bill languishes in committee, and without grassroots pressure may never be called to the floor for a vote.

The March for Justice, organized by a coalition of 200 farmworker organizations, labor unions, faith communities and advocacy and community groups, began on Saturday, May 1 in Auburn. For ten days the marchers traveled by foot through upstate NY, through Syracuse, Oneida, Utica, Little Falls, Canajoharie, Amsterdam, Schenectady and Colonie. They arrived in Albany on May 10 to bring their message to the state legislature.

At evening programs and rallies along the way, the marchers explained their cause and their motivation for undertaking this long journey. They asked people to contact their State Senator to ask him or her, not just to support, but to co-sponsor the legislation. The Senators need to hear from constituents that there is real support for this equal rights legislation in order to convince them to take action.

Upon reaching Albany the group was met by a large contingent from the Civil Services Employees Association (CSEA). The March for Justice proceeded to the state capitol where the marchers started a 24-hour vigil that lasted until the noon rally of hundreds the following day.

Farmworkers rights advocates, clad in bright red T-shirts and ponchos, declaring, “Farmworkers Deserve Equal Rights,” heard from Arthur Rodriguez, President of the United Farm Workers union. Rodriguez, successor to Caesar Chavez, called upon the Senate and the Governor to ensure that farmworkers are granted equal rights. “It’s a moral obligation on their part,” he declared.

Lucas Benitez, co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (Florida), pledged to continue to pressure the legislators: “As long as workers working seven days a week can’t maintain a dignified standard of living and...as long as farmworkers are seen as second class people.”

Dennis Hughes, President of the New York State AFL-CIO, expressed his dismay that farmworkers have not yet won the right to collective bargaining in NY, a state with 2.5 million union members. He vowed, “With all my heart I promise you that we will fight with you until you win your equal rights.”

A co-sponsor of the legislation, State Senator Olga Mendez (R-Bronx) reported that the bill has been voted out of the Labor Committee and is now awaiting action by the Rules Committee. Do your part to gain justice for farmworkers by contacting your State Senator to support bill S3351.