Attorney General James And Governor Cuomo Applaud Court Decision Affirming Farmworkers' Right To Organize

Attorney General James and Governor Cuomo Applaud Court Decision Affirming Farmworkers’ Right to Organize

Declares Exclusion of Farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act to be Unconstitutional by a 4-1 Majority 

NEW YORK—Attorney General Letitia James and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today applauded a decision by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department in the case of Crispin Hernandez v. the State of New York and the New York Farm Bureau, declaring that farmworkers across the state have the right to organize and to bargain collectively. The court ruled the exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act (SERA) to be unconstitutional. 

“I applaud the court’s decision affirming the right for farmworkers to organize in the State of New York,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “This ruling asserts that farmworkers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law. My office will always fight for the hardworking people in this state, and their fundamental rights to organize, access workplace protections, and receive fair wages for a fair day’s work.” 

“This is a victory for some of the most vulnerable members of New York’s workforce. From the beginning, we chose not to defend against this lawsuit because farmworkers never should have been denied the same basic rights as other workers and we believed this to not only be morally wrong, but also unconstitutional,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo. “My administration has proudly fought for working men and women across the board, from raising the minimum wage to strengthening worker protections in nail salons and the home health care industry – and we will never tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers anywhere, period. I commend the court’s decision to correct this undeniable injustice and reaffirm New York’s principles of fairness and equality for all.”

Article 1, § 17 of the New York Constitution guarantees that all “employees” in the State possess the fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. The SERA establishes a comprehensive administrative framework to protect employees in their efforts to organize, regulate the collective bargaining process, and provide a forum in which employees and employers can amicably and promptly resolve labor disputes. However, the SERA specifically excludes farmworkers from its coverage, leaving them with no viable means to vindicate their constitutional right. 

Represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), plaintiffs—a farmworker named Crispin Hernandez and two organizations devoted to protecting farmworkers’ rights, Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) and Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY)—brought this lawsuit in Albany County Supreme Court in May 2016, challenging the constitutionality of the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers. The complaint alleged that Mr. Hernandez’s employer, Marks Farm LLC, terminated his employment in retaliation for exercising his constitutional right to organize by meeting with coworkers and advocates from WCCNY and WJCNY to discuss dangerous working conditions on the farm. But because the SERA excludes farmworkers, Mr. Hernandez was left with no protection under the law.  

Although the State and the Governor were the named defendants in the action, they announced their intention to argue that the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers violated farmworkers’ right to equal protection under the New York Constitution. An advocacy group representing agricultural employers, the Farm Bureau, then intervened to defend the constitutionality of the statute. The Farm Bureau filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and Supreme Court Justice Richard J. McNally, Jr., granted the motion, rejecting plaintiffs’ constitutional claims. Plaintiffs and the State defendants then appealed to the Appellate Division, Third Department, and filed separate appeals briefs arguing that the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers violated the New York Constitution.  

In an opinion drafted by Justice Christine M. Clark, the Third Department, by a 4-1 majority, reversed the Supreme Court’s decision and held that the exclusion of farmworkers from the SERA was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that farmworkers are “employees” within the plain meaning of the term and that nothing in the constitutional provision’s language or history suggests an intent to give that term a narrower meaning. Additionally, the Court held that the right to organize and collectively bargain “is enshrined in the New York Bill of Rights” and has “fundamental status” under New York’s “longstanding tradition of protecting the rights of workers.” Based on this fundamental status, the Court held that “any statute impairing this right must withstand strict scrutiny,” meaning that it must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. The Court then concluded that “the farm laborer exclusion cannot conceivably withstand strict scrutiny” and thus “violates the NY Constitution.” Accordingly, the Court declared that the SERA’s exclusion of farmworkers “is unconstitutional as a matter of law.” 

Justice Clark’s opinion was joined by Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry, as well as Justices Michael C. Lynch and Eugene P. Devine. Justice Stan L. Pritzker filed a dissent.