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Looking to harvest equality: farmworkers advocate. Photo by Teri Currie.

Rights Plowed Under?
Farmworker advocates push for legislation to end exploitation of migrant workers

By Travis Durfee

Sixteen-year-old Jayson remembers being pulled from school nearly 10 years ago when his newborn sister succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

As he and his parents drove down the dirt road to their home, Jayson asked where his sister was, and his mother starting sobbing. “She stopped breathing,” she said, and Jayson began to cry as well. Jayson remembers being dropped off at home with his mother and siblings, all of them in tears.

And Jayson remembers his father having to return to work at the dairy farm that very same day.

“He wasn’t even allowed to stop work,” said Jayson, who didn’t want to give his last name. “I remember he quit because the boss wouldn’t even allow him to stop work for the funeral. He had to go back the day after the funeral, and we left [the farm] the next day.”

As a farm laborer in New York, Jayson’s father couldn’t exchange a few of his regular days off for bereavement time when his newborn child died, because he had no regular days off—state labor law doesn’t require farm operators to grant their laborers a regular day of rest. Nor does the law give farm laborers overtime pay, disability insurance or collective bargaining rights, which are standard to nearly every other form of employment throughout the state.

“Truthfully, it pisses me off that farmworkers don’t have these rights,” said Jayson, the eldest son of a migrant family currently working at a 200-cow dairy farm in western New York. “My job is one of the oldest professions there is, yet we are one of the last ones to get equal rights. It just seems so basic.”

Frustrated that farm laborers still don’t have these basic labor rights in 2003, Jayson and hundreds of advocates took part in a 330-mile, two-pronged march departing from Seneca Falls and Harlem to Albany for yesterday’s (April 30) rally for farmworker’s rights.

A few hundred rally attendees fanned out into Capitol Park in front of the Alfred E. Smith Building, as Jayson and a number of other marchers and speakers addressed the crowd—a wash of orange and red T-shirts reading “Farm workers deserve equal rights.” The rally, organized by the farmworker advocacy group Rural and Migrant Ministry, was a mix of speeches from people of faith, labor advocates and politicians punctuated by labor cheers translated in both English and Spanish, and bursts from a mariachi band.

“If any employer can keep their employees’ wages, benefits and other protections at a minimum, they will, unfortunately,” said Mario Cilento, spokesman for the labor group New York State AFL-CIO. “Because farmworkers don’t have a right to collectively bargain, it is obviously much easier for the farm owners to do so. Most farmworkers are being taken advantage of, and that’s embarrassing in this day and age.”

The AFL-CIO and a number of labor and religious groups have long lobbied the Legislature for better treatment of the state’s farm laborers and have received incremental changes along the way.

But for the past two years, these groups have been lobbying for the all-encompassing Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that has passed the Democrat- controlled Assembly each of the past two sessions, but has failed to make it to floor of the Republican-controlled Senate.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Olga Mendez (D-L-R-I, Bronx), specifically grants farmworkers collective bargaining rights, requires employers of farm laborers to allow at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, provides for an 8-hour workday, and requires the standard time-and-half rate of pay for hours worked over 40 per week. The legislation also seeks to make unemployment-insurance law applicable to farm laborers injured on the job.

“How could we reconcile giving subsidies to the farmers, yet we continue to deny rights to the farmworkers?” Mendez said. “If there is an injustice going on, and a lot of people get involved, social change will occur.”

But Mendez and other advocates are up against the state’s powerful agricultural lobby, specifically the New York Farm Bureau. Julie Suarez, spokeswomen for the farm bureau, said Mendez’s all-encompassing labor legislation would be harmful to farmers, specifically the provisions for collective bargaining rights.

“When you’re talking about collective bargaining, you’re talking about putting farmers in an untenable position,” said Suarez. “Unlike manufacturers of widgets, you only have a very limited window to get the crop in, so the possibility of a strike would absolutely put the farmer out of business in a second.”

But Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministry, said concerns about a farmworker strike during harvest doesn’t apply to a number of the state’s farm laborers working on nonseasonal dairy or poultry farms.

“If you continue to deny farmworkers these rights, essentially what you are saying is that they’re second-class citizens, that they are less human than all of the people employed in the state,” Witt said. “It’s not fair to balance a system on the backs of one class of people, and it’s not like getting these rights is going to break the industry.”

Jayson had high hopes for yesterday’s rally and its effect on the state Legislature.

“If all these people have marched all this way and we still don’t get these rights, I don’t see how we can do anything but step up our game and just wreak havoc,” said Jayson. But the bill did not make it to the Senate floor Wednesday, stalling in the labor committee.

Regardless of how he decides to “wreak havoc,” Jayson, who worked an additional 24 hours the week before last so he could spend his spring break on the march, said he will be 18 and ready to vote in the state’s upcoming legislative elections in November 2004. If Mendez’s legislation hasn’t been passed by the time he gets to cast his first state vote, Jayson said he will be calling his representatives to see where they stand on his rights.

Who Lets the Dogs Out?
Mixed reactions to proposed restrictions on pets running loose in Albany parks
By John Gallagher

Residents crowded seats, stood against walls and even sat on the floor in City Hall as the Common Council listened to comments on proposed changes to Albany’s animal-control laws.

The hearing filled the room with two opposed groups of people: One group calling themselves “responsible dog owners,” and the other complaining about the public-safety risks caused by dogs running loose in the city.

Several changes to animal-control laws are being considered by the council. Two of these changes incited a group of dog owners to attend the hearing and speak out. One proposed change would restrict dogs from coming within 100 feet of any playground in the city—an increase from the 25-foot restriction under current law. Another would take away dog owners’ rights to let their dogs run free in the city’s parks.

Among those who spoke out in favor of the changes were several seeing-impaired residents of Albany—residents who require service, or guide, dogs to get around. They complained about uncontrolled dogs bothering and even attacking their service dogs.

Barry Berberich, executive director of the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany, brought up an incident from two years ago, where a service dog belonging to a NABA member was attacked by an aggressive, unleashed dog on the corner of Lexington and Central avenues in Albany.

Berberich said that people who are seeing-impaired shouldn’t have to live with the fear and danger of being bothered by uncontrolled dogs.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” Berberich said. “The needs of people who are blind have to be addressed.”

City officials and some dog owners in Albany also claim that the unleashed dogs cause public-safety hazards.

Detective James Miller, spokesman for the Albany Public Safety Department, said that irresponsible dog owners pose serious risks to public well-being. “We saw a definite increase in the number of dog attacks [last year] in which all of the dogs were running loose,” Miller said.

While the current dog ordinance allows owners to let their pets run free only in the city’s parks, Miller said people have been attacked by dogs running loose on several occasions, some taking place in parks and others on the streets.

“People weren’t adhering to [the ordinance],” Miller said. “The urban setting is not conducive to dogs running loose.”

Recently, the city has made changes in an attempt to crack down on the growing problem of dog attacks by patrolling more aggressively for uncontrolled or unlicensed animals and even creating a separate unit within the Department of Public Safety for animal-control officers. The animal-control law changes are a part of the stepped-up effort to reduce dog- related violence.

The current ordinance allows dogs to run free if their owners have them under voice control—a condition that even opponents of the proposed changes seem to agree isn’t met by the majority of dog owners.

“Most people who come [to the park] don’t train their dogs well,” said R A De Prima, a local dog owner.

De Prima said that even though the current leash law poses certain problems, he believes it benefits the city and the park, and shouldn’t be revised. He is one of a group of people who bring their dogs regularly to a section of Washington Park known as the dog run.

Supporters of the current law would like to see specific areas set up in the parks for the dogs to run, separated from the rest of the public.

Michael Hardek, owner of a Doberman named Coco, moved to Albany recently from New York City, where there are dog runs in many parks.

“The dogs need a place to run in the city,” Hardek said.

On the other hand, many dog owners who always keep their dogs leashed complain about uncontrolled dogs. They point out that dogs running free can pester, and trigger aggressive behavior, in some leashed dogs, which leads to confrontations.

A separate area for the dogs to run would help to solve this problem, De Prima said. He would like to see one in Washington Park as well as in other city parks. Currently, there is one official dog park in Albany, located near the Huck Finn Furniture Warehouse downtown. This is hardly a convenience for dog owners living around the Washington Park neighborhood, De Prima said.

De Prima also pointed out the inconvenience of people loading dogs into their cars, bringing them down to the park—which he said is often muddy—and then driving them back home.

“And what about the people who don’t have cars?” De Prima asked.

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