Article I of the New York State Constitution is the Bill of Rights. Section 17, ratified in 1938, says: “Labor of human beings is not a commodity nor an article of commerce and shall never be so considered or construed. Employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
We read those clear-as-day words 20 years ago and asked why farmworkers who harvest our food, from Long Island to the Hudson Valley and across the length and breath of upstate, were alone denied the right to organize under state labor law.
Doesn’t the Constitution take precedence over a discriminatory statute? Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the state’s chief legal officer, thought so, but he never brought a case to challenge the law. Neither did his successors.
After we wrote of the August 2015 firing of upstate field hand Crispin Hernandez from a dairy for meeting with labor advocates from the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, they sued the state, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The defendant, Gov. Cuomo, in a bold and correct move unprecedented in state history, agreed with the plaintiffs and called for the statute to be overturned. The Farm Bureau growers’ lobby stepped in to defend the law. The trial judge then stalled for close to two years before dismissing the suit.
Thursday, at long last, four appellate justices did what we did two decades ago. They read the plain words of the Constitution, declaring in a strong and stirring ruling that the exclusion “is unconstitutional as a matter of law.”