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State Senate defeats farm labor bill

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Posted: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 9:55 am

ALBANY — For months — years, in fact — farmworker advocates have tried to get the full New York State Legislature to vote on legislation giving farmworkers overtime pay and other workplace rights.

The chance for a vote finally came Tuesday and the Senate narrowly rejected the proposal, 31-28. The bill has resurfaced several times in Albany this year, despite being voted down in the Agriculture Committee.

New York Farm Bureau has strongly opposed the legislation, claiming it would foist $200 million more in operating costs on farmers.

“By killing this bill once and for all, Albany has shown a commitment to the future of farming and the Upstate rural economy,” Dean Norton, president of New York Farm Bureau, said in a statement. “Had this bill gone through, it would have seriously damaged the ability of our local farms to produce local food for local people.”

New York would have been at a competitive disadvantage with other Northeastern states if the proposal had been approved, Farm Bureau has said.

Farm Bureau officials highlighted the work of Darrel Aubertine, a Democrat from the North Country, and Catharine Young, a Republican from Olean, in rallying votes to oppose the “Omnibus Farmworker Labor Bill.”

Young, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, addressed her colleagues on the Senate floor before the vote. She said the bill would hurt agriculture, a $4.2 billion annual business in Upstate New York. The dairy industry continues to reel from the disastrously low milk prices in 2009, and Young said many dairymen are worried about their future.

“I can’t think of a worse bill to bring up at this time that hurts the New York State economy,” Young said.

She said the bill would push some farms out of business and leave less money for farms to spend on equipment dealers and other small businesses in their communities.

“This bill takes away any hope of our farms surviving in New York State,” she said.

The legislation also would have provided workers with a mandatory day off each week. A similar proposal last week was vetoed in California by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Pedro Espada, the Senate majority leader, has pushed hard for the farmworker rights bill. He threatened not to return to Albany for a budget vote unless his colleagues took up the farmworker legislation.

Espada and other Democratic leaders in Albany have been vocal in recent months, trying to get the law approved. During an Albany rally on June 15, Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx called on state legislators to approve the bill.

“They are being oppressed, they are being abused, they are being treated as slaves,” Diaz said about farmworkers during the rally. A YouTube clip of Diaz and other speakers is on Espada’s Web site.

“Democrats, let’s stand up for what we believe,” Diaz said.

Farm Bureau leaders have been upset with the characterization they treat their workers as “slaves.”

Norton said New York farmers already pay workers well above the national average. For every $100 in food produced, New York farmers paid an average $13.82 to farm workers — compared to the national average of $8.88.

“We are proud of the farmers and senators who spoke out against this bill and once again sent it to its defeat,” said Norton, a Batavia resident. “Should it reappear again, we will fight with the same vigor and determination to kill it once again.”

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