Statement on Feb. 21 Agribusiness Lawsuit Hearing


Yesterday, Judge John Sinatra Jr., presiding over the U.S. District Court in the Western District of New York, lifted all but one piece of a temporary restraining order (TRO) that had frozen the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act (FLFLPA).

This TRO had effectively brought to a halt organizing and collective bargaining efforts among New York farmworkers. It arose from a federal lawsuit that agribusiness has brought against the New York State Attorney General and the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), which holds legislative authority to oversee implementation of the 2019 law.

Rural & Migrant Ministry spent more than 20 years seeking passage of this historic law that gives farmworkers the right to overtime after 40 hours, a day of rest and the right to bargain collectively. RMM is pleased with the Judge’s decision, which should enable efforts by farmworkers to improve their conditions, and their lives, to resume.

The one piece of the TRO that the Judge did not lift concerns the section of the law that said farmers cannot influence organizing campaigns, ruling this would curtail farmers’ freedom of speech. This is disconcerting, as there is a long history of employers unfairly influencing and even coercing workers during their efforts to unionize – especially when employers have power over their workers. Given that many farmworkers live on the farms where they work, and have no easy avenue to escape these pressures, this is a concerning decision.

At this point, the farm owners can either appeal by asking a higher court to review Judge Sinatra’s ruling, amend their complaint, or do nothing and let the lawsuit move forward — so the case is not over.

Agribusiness has vowed to continue to push to change the legislation at the heart of this lawsuit. They argue that they know what is best for farmworkers and are seeking to take on the mantle of farmworker rights advocates. Here is a statement from the president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, Brian Reeves, in Morning AgClips:

“While progress was made, our efforts to protect farmworkers’ rights have been delayed. We will continue to advocate for fairness for farmworkers in New York State.... Farmworkers deserve the same rights as everyone else. By making the amendments and improvements to the FLFLPA that New York’s agriculture community is seeking, farmworkers will finally have the same collective bargaining right as all other private sector workers.”

RMM is grateful to New York State Attorney General Letitia James and John Wirenius, Chair of the Public Employees Relations Board, for defending the rights of New York’s farmworkers. We also renew our vow to continue working to ensure that farmworkers’ own voices are heard at tables where decisions impacting their lives are made. For we know that the backlash against the just treatment of farmworkers will continue.