GOUVERNEUR — Protecting the rights of the voiceless farm workers in the north country was of chief concern to members of the Lewis, Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties Central Trades and Labor Council Wednesday night when they had the opportunity to speak with State Commissioner of Labor Roberta Reardon.
Ms. Reardon visited the council during its meeting at Mullin’s Family Restaurant on Route 11 to highlight Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget, which she told the Times following her nearly hour long presentation, was a pro-union budget.
“The budget is an incredible document of vision. I think he is a rare human being,” Ms. Reardon said, when speaking about Mr. Cuomo. “It’s no bologna, this is a governor who cares about the citizens of New York. He’s very deeply concerned about people’s rights to collectively bargain. It is in the New York State Constitution and he supports that and he is against anything that would take that away from the citizens of the state.”
Following her presentation labor council President Ronald P. McDougall, who is also the mayor of Gouverneur, said that the union members in the room believed in the rights of all people and that immigrant farm workers were being denied the rights of many labor workers.
“The Farm Workers Bill, there is a lot of resistance in Northern New York by big farmers,” Mr. McDougall told Ms. Reardon. “When you are negotiating you don’t get everything you want,” but he said that he felt that some workers are being taken advantage of.
The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act provides for the right of farm workers to collectively organize, although not to strike, to collect overtime pay after 60 hours of work, and for a full day off per week, with the option to work during the day of rest at one and a half times their normal hourly rate of pay.
Ernest J. LaBaff, president emeritus of the Aluminum, Brink and Glassworkers International Union said the 60 hour limit before allowing overtime for farm laborers is “making slaves out of those people.”
Mr. LaBaff said that the north country farms have immigrants from working from a variety of places around the world, such as Guatemala.
“We know the farm worker is a tough job and they are good people and they are immigrants. I don’t understand the immigrant policy of this president when agriculture needs the immigrants,” he said. “What worker that works for a union, or anywhere else, wants to go work where you can only get overtime after 60 hours of work . . . Why should you establish a position on farm workers that separates them from every other human being who works for a living.“
Ms. Reardon said by Friday there will be an announcement by the state of the appointment of members of a new wage board that will hear testimony throughout the state from concerned workers and advocates of farm employees, including their concerns on the overtime issue.
“We have to have three meetings within 45 days of the first meeting, so the first meeting will be the end of February and the other two meetings will be held in March and we are thinking about having two other meetings as well, just because we want to make sure we have meetings around the state, because these are farmers and their workers and they’re not going to travel all over the state to testify, we are aware of that,” she said. “And the charge in the rule is to determine what overtime should be set at and what schedule they need to arrive at. So it is going to be a big conversation and I welcome it.”
Jason A. Clark, the council’s recording secretary said since the 2010 loss of abut 96 farms in St. Lawrence County, there are about seven farms that milk more than 2,500 cows a piece.
“I mean, that’s huge, and to Ernie’s point, that is corporate farming. This is not small town family dairy. This is a massive million dollar corporate operation,” he said. “These are folks that need a voice and they simply don’t have a voice otherwise. The extra $6 an hour for overtime at 40 hours, when you are a multimillion dollar operation, you can afford the extra kernels. It might not mean a lot to guy who has a $20 million farming operation,but that guy who is trying to buy Cheerios for his kid? It matters to him.”
As she was leaving the meeting, Ms. Reardon told the Times the voices in the room did not go unheard.
“I think they are very appreciative of the work the governor and his administration has done and that is really great news,” she said. “I heard some wonderful stuff in there tonight. People speaking up for the rights of people who often are voiceless. Ernie talking about the farm laborer’s plight.
“This is small town American and it is small town America going in he right direction,” she said. “They’re saying everybody has a right to be here and they are saying how can we help the farm workers that we know are not going to speak for themselves. That is truly remarkable.”