Commentary & Opinion
12:23 pm
Mon July 15, 2013

Richard Iannuzzi: Everyone, Except Farmworkers

Growing up catholic I was told more than once that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The New York State legislature proved that once again this year when it failed to pass the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.  The state Assembly passed the Act by a wide margin, yet again, the measure stalled in the state Senate, where its leaders refused to even allow it to come to a vote.  A lot of lawmakers talk about farmworker justice, but few are willing to deliver on those promises.

New York's farmworkers sweat in fields across our state, yet those who pick the grapes, tomatoes, apples and other produce we enjoy at our tables are still denied the rights and protections enjoyed by other workers in our state.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights -- part of a growing coalition of groups, including the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and the Rural Migrant Ministry -- has been pressing legislators to enact the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act for many years, too many years.  I proudly serve on the Board of Directors of the RFK Center and as co-chair of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition along with Bishop Howard Hubbard.  These organizations along with many others have been waging a long battle to bring the plight of farmworkers to the forefront and end this injustice.

“Except Farmworkers," a campaign of the RFK Center, works for the passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.  It points out all the basic workplace rights and protections enjoyed by you and me and everyone else in New York's diverse workforce –– except farmworkers.

It was nearly a half-century ago when then-New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy traveled to California to see for himself the miserable conditions endured by farmworkers who toiled in the hot sun at the mercy of big agricultural businesses.

After spending a day with the farmworkers who picked lettuce and grapes for low wages in horrific conditions Kennedy embraced their cause and devoted his time to ensuring that farmworkers achieve justice in the workplace.  His work with organizer and labor leader Cesar Chavez helped win lasting improvements for California farmworkers, including better wages and working conditions.

 How ironic and disheartening that nearly 50 years later, farmworkers are still treated by New York law much the same as California farmworkers were treated back in the 1960s!  Sadly, the fight for justice for farmworkers must still be waged!

The RFK Center has it right -- there should be no “exceptions” on matters of basic human rights.  New York’s farmworkers deserve the same rights, protections and dignity on the job as everyone else.   

Perhaps, some of those holding seats in the state Senate should take a cue from Robert F. Kennedy and travel to New York’s fields to meet with those toiling under difficult and at times inhumane conditions to bring the foods each of us enjoys to our tables.  Then they, too, may be able to see what RFK saw -- and what he joined Cesar Chavez in fighting for:  The guarantee that every worker must be able to enjoy basic human rights and dignity on the job -- with no exceptions.

Richard C. Iannuzzi is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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