New York’s second-highest court ruled Thursday that farmworkers have a constitutional right to collective bargaining rights, overturning a previous court ruling.
In a 2-1 ruling, the Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled that farmworkers’ right to organize and collectively bargain was guaranteed under the New York State Constitution.
New York Farm Bureau, which is a co-defendant in the case, issued a statement Thursday criticizing the opinion:
"We are extremely disappointed in the majority’s decision and the breadth of its ruling," writes David Fisher, president of New York Farm Bureau. "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. 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. The court’s dissenting opinion exposed the flaws in the majority’s ruling and identified that the decision eliminates Farm Bureau’s right to defend the constitutionality of the statute in trial court."
Steve Ammerman, spokesman for Farm Bureau, says the organization will appeal to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
History of the case
The case goes back to 2016 when farmworker Crispin Hernandez, the Workers Center of Central New York, the Worker Justice Center of New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the state after Hernandez was fired from one of the state’s largest dairies. New York Farm Bureau was granted intervenor status and is a co-defendant in the case.
Hernandez claims that his employer, located in Lewis County, fired him after seeing him meeting with coworkers and a labor organizer to discuss workplace conditions. The meeting took place after work hours and in a worker’s home.
The lawsuit was filed in May 2016. At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said publicly that they would not defend the Employment Relations Act in court, saying that it conflicted with the state’s constitution.
The lawsuit was dismissed in January 2018.
On Feb. 11, the state’s Supreme Court Appellate Division heard an appeal from the New York Civil Liberties Union. New York Farm Bureau has long opposed farmworker collective bargaining rights, arguing in court that the State Employment Relations Act, which excludes farmworkers from collective bargaining rights, is constitutional.
The New York Civil Liberties Union argued that the act is the product of segregationist politics enacted in the 1930s and that it violates the state’s constitution.
In its opinion, the court took the side of the Civil Liberties Union: "Indeed, there is nothing in the language of the constitutional provision to support the suggestion that the drafters intended for the term ‘employees’ to be narrowed or limited in any way. Accordingly, when the term employees is given its natural and ordinary meaning, we think it clear that the constitutional right to organize and collectively bargain extends to individuals employed as farm laborers."