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New York court rules for farmworkers' union rights, shaking Farm Bureau

Alyssa Diodato, left, from Brooklyn, and Michelle Nevins

Alyssa Diodato, left, from Brooklyn, and Michelle Nevins from upstate New York transplant flowers at Share The Harvest Farm in East Hampton. The farm donates most of its produce to charitable organizations on the East End. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

ALBANY — Farmworkers scored a big victory Thursday in a midlevel state court, which said they should have union rights like other employees.

In a 4-1 decision, the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Albany ruled that a section of New York state law that prohibits farmworkers from organizing and collectively bargaining with their employers is unconstitutional.

The decision is expected to be appealed to New York’s highest court.

But the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of several plaintiffs, called the decision a major victory, in part because it comes at a time when they and others are lobbying heavily in Albany for approval of a “farmworkers bill of rights.”

Their opponents in the lawsuit, the New York Farm Bureau, also called the ruling potentially far-reaching, saying it could threaten the viability of some farms.

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said the ruling was, “unequivocal that denying farmworkers' basic labor rights is flat-out unconstitutional, and farmworkers, like other workers, have the right to organize.”

The NYCLU said it was the first time a state court had ruled that a 1930s exception to the State Employment Relations Act that excluded farmworkers from some labor rights violated state law. The appellate court overturned a trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

"Even if the farm laborer exclusion serves to protect some aspect of the state's agricultural industry, the wholesale exclusion of farm laborers from SERA's statutory framework is not narrowly tailored to any compelling state interest," Justice Christine Clark wrote for the majority.

"As the farm laborer exclusion cannot conceivably withstand strict scrutiny, it violates the NY Constitution," Clark said.

The Farm Bureau said the appellate court erred in its decision and in the “breadth of its ruling.”

“The Appellate Court was considering the trial court’s decision on a motion to dismiss, which, if denied would have permitted Farm Bureau to fully litigate this case in the trial court,” Farm Bureau president David Fisher said. “Instead, the majority of the court decided to make a far-reaching determination by declaring the right to collectively bargain as a ‘fundamental right,’ on par with the freedoms of speech and religion. We believe that the majority’s conclusion is unsupportable and disregards decades of precedent.”

Fisher said his organization will take the case to the state Court of Appeals. If the midlevel ruling stands, he said, it will threaten the viability of the “rural economy and local job opportunities.”

Technically, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James were on the side of the Farm Bureau in the case, named as defendants because the NYCLU and workers were suing to strike down state law.

But their offices had said early in the lawsuit they wouldn’t defend the labor law exception. That prompted the Farm Bureau to step in as intervenors defending the statute.

Cuomo and James, both Democrats, issued statements Thursday applauding the court decision.

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