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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.
  • 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!

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

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