Karen Magee: Walking For Farmworker Justice

May 19, 2016

Amid the turmoil of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, the great Elvis Presley once sang — as only the King could sing — about the need for tolerance and compassion in society.

In his song, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” Elvis reminded Americans that before they judged anyone or anything, they should find a way to get inside the minds and bodies of others, to experience what they are experiencing.  To that point, Elvis crooned, “If you could see through my eyes instead of your ego, I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’ve been blind.”

While the Elvis of 1970 was commenting on the quest by African-Americans for equality and justice, his words apply today to how New York law — and some of our elected leaders — view farmworkers.

You may not realize it, but farmworkers in New York — many of them immigrants or migrants — work every day in debilitating conditions to help put the food we eat on our tables.  Yet, farmworkers are excluded — yes, excluded — from basic labor law protections that apply to every other worker.

In the words of the Rural and Migrant Ministry, a group courageously leading the farmworkers’ fight for justice, New York’s law is “a relic of the Jim Crow era that deprives more than 80,000 farmworkers the rights that other workers take for granted.”

The Walk a Mile In My Shoes theme is particularly appropriate because, beginning on May 15th, farmworkers and activists for social justice are marching 200 miles from Smithtown on Long Island to the state Capitol building in Albany to call attention to this inequity — and to demand justice.

The union I lead — New York State United Teachers — is supporting this march for farmworkers’ rights every step of the way.  Our members and leaders will be at rallies and worship services sponsored by the Rural and Migrant Ministry, and pushing for enactment in Albany of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

The bill before the Assembly and Senate would establish an eight-hour work day for farmworkers, and one day of rest each week.

It would require employers to provide workers compensation benefits to farmworkers injured on the job, and unemployment pay when farmworkers are laid off.

It would allow farmworkers to form a union and negotiate collectively.

And, the bill would require that housing facilities set aside for farmworkers meet basic standards under the Sanitary Code.

In 2016, in one of the nation’s most progressive states, it is shameful to me that farmworkers must still fight for access to clean water, adequate light and ventilation, and working toilets in their housing.

The issue is one of basic human rights and worker rights.

As we hear about the farmworkers making their way north from Long Island to Albany, we should be thinking about what it must be like to be a migrant farmworker in New York today.

Would any of us work seven, 12-hour days in the broiling sun — with no overtime and no workplace protections?

Would we be willing to spend the night in a cramped, glorified shed without windows, or access to clean water and bathroom facilities?

Would any of us be willing or able to walk a mile — or even a step — in those shoes?

We should see this issue through the eyes of farmworkers and not be blind to their continued exploitation.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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