SODUS — Dozens of farm workers and their allies chanted “The people united will never be defeated” as they marched through town May 2.
“What do we want?” Rosa Rivera shouted through a megaphone as she moved up and down the column of marchers.
“Justice!” the marchers shouted back.
“When do we want it?” Rivera asked.
“Now!” was the resounding answer.
Rivera is a former farm worker and the director of the Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas, which is known by its Spanish acronym — CITA — or in English as the Independent Farmworkers Center. CITA, a statewide farm-worker membership organization, planned the four-day March for Justice.
Sodus was just one of the stops on the march, which began April 30 in Albion. The march also passed through Holley, Brockport, Greece, Rochester, Newark and Geneva before ending at the state capitol in Albany, where representatives from the group met with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and urged him to bring the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act to the Senate floor for a vote.
If passed, the bill would grant New York’s farm workers disability insurance, overtime pay, one day of rest per week and the right to collectively bargain. The bill has already been passed by the Assembly in the previous legislative session. CITA claims a majority of senators are willing to back the bill, but Bruno has not let it reach the Senate floor.
Sister of Mercy Janet Korn was among the marchers in Sodus. She joined the march because she felt it was part of her duty as a Catholic person, said Sister Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities.
“Part of the social teaching of the church really supports — not only supports, but demands — that workers be treated justly and fairly,” she said. “It’s part of our faith commitment that we are in solidarity with other workers who are looking for just wages and rights.”
Francisco Rosario marched in the hope of ending what he calls discrimination against farm workers. Rosario, a farm worker for 20 years, is currently an organizer with CITA and now only works part time on farms. He said change is necessary, but it can’t always start at the level of the individual farmer. The entire system has to change, and communication must be improved before this change can take place, he said.
“Sometimes the farm workers don’t speak English, and the farmers don’t speak Spanish,” Rosario said.
Another problem farm workers face is their lack of a future with the farms they work on. There is work for the farm workers while they are young, but there is often no place for them when they grow old, he said. Farm workers will face fewer challenges if they are granted the rights included in the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, he said
Rivera was cautiously optimistic about the farm workers’ ability to gain those rights. The farm workers’ May 3 meeting with Bruno went well, she said after returning from Albany. Rivera, four farm workers and Bill Abom, associate director for Rural and Migrant Ministry, met with Bruno; Ed Bartholomew, Bruno’s chief of staff; and several other senators. All of the legislators were very respectful and listened to what the farm workers had to say, Rivera said.
Rivera told Bruno that many people falsely assume that farm workers are attacking farmers and farm bureaus by pushing for the legislation. Many also falsely assume that all farm workers are undocumented and are in this country illegally, she said.
“Why are the farm workers the only people other than domestic workers excluded from the same labor laws that protect every other worker in New York state?” Rivera said she told Bruno. “Farm workers are not asking for a handout. The farm workers are just asking for the same basic human rights everyone else has. This is all about legislation being passed, and you have the power to do that.”
At that point, “He held up his hands and said, ‘OK, Rosa, I agree with you. Farm workers do deserve equal rights. … How about we sit down and negotiate this?'”
Mark Hansen, Bruno’s spokesman said the senator needs to look at some of the legislative concerns related to the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, such as the cost of doing business, but will continue to discuss the issues Rivera and the farm workers brought up.
“They had a very positive discussion and plan to continue to have a dialogue on this legislation,” Hansen said.
Rivera is scheduled to meet with Bruno again within the next few weeks. She is concerned the senator’s goals may not be the same as those on the farm workers’ agenda but is grateful for the opportunity to negotiate with him.
“We’re happy that at least we’re moving a step forward,” Rivera said.