Justice for farm workers

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Everyone knows that much of New York State is farm country, famous for its dairy farms, apples and grapes, cherries and peaches. It’s a leading producer of sweet corn, tomatoes, snap beans, onions, green peas, cucumbers and cabbage. It’s a major greenhouse and nursery state. New York beef is a major product. Agriculture in New York is a five billion dollar industry. A “food movement” has taken hold in New York in part because our state is so well-suited to producing this cornucopia and in part because of large populations of city-dwellers with a growing interest in the deep-rooted American mythology of the agrarian “ideal” -- bucolic landscapes dotted with small, family farms, contented animals, fruit-laden orchards and fields of grain – and money to spend on local bounty.

This food movement, which manifests itself in glossy magazines about Hudson Valley restaurants serving the latest artisanal breads, cheeses, and wines; in a legion of food writers, columnists, and celebrity chefs; and in belated concern for the welfare of farm animals, of the land (down with synthetic, up with organic), and of the health benefits of eating more naturally produced, local foods has overlooked a critical ingredient: the laborer who makes all this possible.

In her riveting 2014 book “Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic,” Adelphi University professor Margaret Gray asks her readers what happened to the farm worker in this ecstatic (and sometimes self-congratulatory) tale of pastoral success. American agriculture has always relied on special support from government. It is seen as being singularly worthy, both in terms of the belief in agrarian “virtue” that our country has long nurtured, and the critical importance of feeding an ever-expanding population. 

Farmers and their organizations have always contended that no other industry faces the same challenges, and thus deserves special treatment, particularly in terms of safeguarding its cheap labor supply. It was this belief in the exceptionalism of agriculture, commingled with racism toward so many of those who have worked in American fields and orchards, that cemented the agreement excluding farm workers from New Deal labor protections such as the collective bargaining protections of the National Labor Relations Act (1935) and the minimum wage and overtime laws of the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938).

Hitting the fast-forward button, we find ourselves in 2016 with a patchwork of state protections, or lack thereof, for agricultural workers. These workers are now largely Latino, having replaced the predominantly black population of farm workers whose plight was so grippingly documented by Edward R. Murrow in the 1960 CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.”

The grim truth? Despite progress in achieving protections for farm labor in California, Florida and other states, New York’s farm workers continue to work without the basic labor rights granted to other workers, including overtime pay, collective bargaining, and a guaranteed day of rest. It has been difficult to secure even drinking water and sanitation facilities in the fields for laborers whose back-breaking toil and profound employment insecurity, frequently mixed with immigration troubles, put so much of the food on our own tables. Until just recently, farmers were exempt from paying their workers the minimum wage. Many farm workers’ children labor in the fields alongside their parents in the hours before and after school, on weekends, and during school vacations, to help their families survive.

On Sunday, May 15, the March for Farmworker Justice, organized by a long-standing advocacy group, Rural & Migrant Ministry, will assemble in Smithtown, Long Island and begin to walk. The marchers will walk 15 miles per day for 17 days, until they reach Albany. Their goal? To raise awareness of the ongoing plight of the nearly invisible New York State farm worker, and to press Albany legislators to at long last pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (S. 1291/A. 4762). Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to sign the bill if it comes to his desk. The bill, which in one form or another has been introduced and blocked by the powerful farm lobby for more than 20 years in Albany, is elegant in its simplicity. It simply de-excludes farm workers from labor rights and protections granted to other workers in our state and country.

The March will reach Washington Heights on Saturday, May 21. The following day, it will travel through Inwood, Marble Hill, and Kingsbridge on Broadway, on its way to Yonkers and the hill towns of the lower Hudson Valley and beyond. Bronx Climate Justice North is partnering with various congregations and civic organizations in our area, including St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, the Community Association of Marble Hill, and the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, to provide a warm welcome to the March and a megaphone for its message of hope and justice.

The March needs you! We hope that readers of The Riverdale Press will join with the March on Sunday, May 22 for an hour or the entire day. It will assemble at 10 a.m. at Holyrood Episcopal Church at 715 W. 179th St, and proceed along Broadway to St. Stephen’s, at 146 W. 228th St in Marble Hill. There, at noon, please join the marchers as they rest and rally with members of the English- and Spanish-speaking congregations of St. Stephen’s/San Esteban, elected officials, and many other members of the community. March, cheer, bring your singing voice or musical instrument, your signs in support of farm worker rights, and let’s make this a day of justice and of joy. 

On Sunday, May 15, the day the March begins in Long Island, come to St. Stephen’s Fellowship Hall at 2 p.m. to watch and discuss two documentaries about the struggle for farm worker justice — one made in 1960, the other in 2012. These films will shock you with evidence of the lack of progress over the course of more than 50 years in securing the rights of those who feed us. 

For details about how to get involved with the March for Farm worker Justice in our area, please email us at bronxclimatejusticenorth@gmail.com. And to learn more about the bigger picture, visit the website of Rural & Migrant Ministry at http://ruralmigrantministry.org.

Let’s make 2016 the year that our state’s farm workers are welcomed to the table, and granted the labor and human rights they have far too long been denied.

¡Si Se Puede!

Jennifer Scarlott is the coordinator and a founding member of Bronx Climate Justice North.

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