Berger: Workers should reap fruits of labor

"Farming the Future: Farm Life on Long Island" "Farming the Future: Farm Life on Long Island" is a documentary screening March 13 as part of a film series on sustainable living at The Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City. Photo Credit: Wendy Chamberlin

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As we applaud NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's strong message that racism should not be tolerated, we must recognize that bias and injustice still thrive in America.

Unfortunately, punishing a single person, no matter how egregious the offense -- in this case Clippers owner Donald Sterling -- doesn't undo wholesale unfairness. For instance, when a whole system -- not a person -- betrays us, there is no one to punish. So, changing entrenched institutions is far more difficult than holding a team owner accountable for expressing racist views.

We have an example of that institutional bias in New York. Today, 80,000 farmworkers in our state are excluded from basic labor protections all other workers enjoy (about 7,000 of them on Long Island). They have no right to a day of rest, to earn overtime pay, to collective bargaining or to collect disability insurance and unemployment compensation. They were excluded because of a legacy of bias.

When Congress approved federal labor laws in the 1930s, it did not extend to domestic workers and farmworkers the basic protections that were granted all other workers. That exclusion was the result of a compromise with Southern Democratic legislators. During a debate over the Fair Labor Standards Act, Rep. Martin Dies (D-Texas) captured the sentiment of a group of southern Democrats. Under the act, Dies said, "what is prescribed for one race must be prescribed for the others, and you cannot prescribe the same wages for the black man as for the white man." At the time, 85 percent of southern African Americans were farmworkers, and the "compromise" led to their decades-long marginalization. A system created for racist reasons continues now, even as the composition of the farmworkers has shifted toward Latinos.

The ramifications of these exclusions are catastrophic. The average life expectancy of a U.S. farmworker is 49, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 30 percent of the nation's farmworkers have a family income below the federal poverty level. As a Nassau County native, I was oblivious to the plight of farmworkers until I attended college upstate. I traveled to labor camps where four men and a family of three were living in a dinky, two-bedroom trailer, and heard about workers being hurt after falling off ladders as they pruned trees, their injuries leading to dismissal or loss of housing. Unfortunately, without a collective voice farmworkers cannot ask employers or labor contractors for better working conditions because the workers fear being fired or not asked back for the next harvest.

So, how can we undo this wrong? For the past 15 years, farmworkers and their allies have been working to pass the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which would remove the labor law exclusions that New York farmworkers face. The bill has passed the Assembly six times, but has never passed the Senate.

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Because farmworkers, unfortunately, lack visible, powerful allies -- like star athletes in a major sport -- they have to depend on political leaders in the Senate to take this issue seriously. So it's time for the co-leaders of the Senate, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), to do the right thing by bringing this bill to the floor. We're grateful to Long Island senators from the majority coalition, Phil Boyle (R-Islip), Jack Martins (R-Mineola), and Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), who have expressed their support for the bill.

There's a long way to go yet before farmworkers achieve the rights so unfairly denied them and time is running out: This year's legislative session ends next month.

Nathan Berger is Long Island outreach coordinator for the Rural and Migrant Ministry and is working on Justice for Farmworkers Campaign.

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