Skip to main content

How New York's farm workers could benefit from their own 'Cesar Chavez'

By Kerry Kennedy, Special to CNN
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Robert F. Kennedy, left, sits next to Cesar Chavez, looking very weak after prolonged hunger strike.
Robert F. Kennedy, left, sits next to Cesar Chavez, looking very weak after prolonged hunger strike.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Farm workers suffer from laws California addressed nearly half a century ago
  • Kennedy: You should see how farm workers are treated
  • Passing new bill is first step to addressing human rights violations
  • All of us have the opportunity to join the struggle today

Editor's note: Kerry Kennedy is the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and author of "Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World" and "Being Catholic Now." She has worked on global human rights issues for more than 30 years and serves as Chair of the Amnesty International USA.

(CNN) -- Forty-six years ago this month, my father joined Cesar Chavez in Delano, California, to share the Eucharist and end Chavez's 1968 fast for farm workers' rights. It took another nine years, but the state of California would go on to answer Chavez's call for justice and pass its groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

Kerry Kennedy
Kerry Kennedy

That law surged California forward in the global labor movement, but New York never had a Cesar Chavez.

And so today -- in the state where my father served as senator and where I now live -- our farm workers suffer from the leftover Jim Crow laws that California addressed nearly half a century ago.

As a resident of New York State, I wanted to see the conditions for myself. So I drove a few hours north of my home to Liberty, New York, and visited the largest producer of fois gras east of the Mississippi.

If you think what farms do to the geese is bad, you should see how they treat the farm workers.

I met a man who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 years without a single day off. He was paid minimum wage. And though he earned it, he could not claim overtime pay -- overtime that would be paid to any deli worker in New York City. If he tried to form a union, he could be fired.

I walked through one-room shacks that housed entire families and past queues that led to filthy bathrooms -- one toilet for every 20 workers. I met women sexually assaulted in the fields by supervisors in return for employment, and children doing backbreaking labor for $3.20 an hour.

The legacy of Jim Crow is alive today in New York, resulting in inexcusable conditions for people who plant our vegetables, pick our fruit and milk our cows. All this is legal in New York, the remnants of a bargain struck nationally with the Dixiecrats to exclude minority workers from New Deal federal fair labor laws.

Obama: Chavez sacrificed for his family

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, passed by the State Assembly last year and languishing in the State Senate, is the first step to addressing some of these egregious violations of international human rights New York farm workers still face.

Morgan Spurlock as migrant farm worker

The bill is far from radical; it merely extends to farm workers the same labor protections nearly every other industry in America has enjoyed since the industrial era. But it would be revolutionary for the roughly 100,000 men, women, and children who give New York its daily bread.

The State Assembly has passed the bill several times; where it stalls is in the Senate, a body that has the votes to pass the bill into law, but where special interests have prevented it from coming to the floor for a vote.

We cannot allow partisan politics to condemn New York's farm workers to another year of misery and abuse. New York's legislature must bring the FFLPA to a vote in 2014.

And when it does, I hope the members of our State Senate will think of that day in 1968, when in front of a crowd of 6,000 farm workers, Robert Kennedy said:

"When your children and grandchildren take their place in America -- going to high school, and college and taking good jobs at good pay -- when you look at them, you will say, 'I did this. I was there at the point of difficulty and danger.'

"And though you may be old and bent from many years of labor, no man will stand taller than you when you say, 'I marched with Cesar.'"

All of us still have the opportunity to join the struggle today.

And if we do, one day when we are old and bent, we will to turn to our children and grandchildren and say, "I was there at the point of difficulty and danger. I marched with the New York Farmworkers." Si se puede!

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Kennedy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT