• Home
  • YLS Today
  • News
  • Lisa Zucker Speaks on Campaigning for Equal Treatment for NY Farmworkers

Thursday, February 20, 2020


Lisa Zucker Speaks on Campaigning for Equal Treatment for NY Farmworkers

The Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) at Yale Law School hosted Lisa Zucker, a legislative attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, to discuss the passage of a landmark law in New York State in 2019 that expanded the rights of farmworkers. Zucker’s visit on February 17, 2020, visit was part of LEAP’s new Climate, Animal, Food and Environmental Law and Policy Lab (CAFE Lab).

“When we thought about case studies for the CAFE Lab that would be both instructive and inspirational, New York's Justice for Farmworkers campaign leaped to the top of our list,” LEAP Faculty Co-Director and Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law Doug Kysar said. “Hearing directly from Lisa Zucker on the campaign's intricacies and lessons was a privilege for all of us.”

New York, home to a multibillion dollar agriculture industry, is the country’s second largest producer of apples and snap beans, and the country’s third largest producer of dairy. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people labor on New York farms, often working in dangerous conditions for low pay.

For the last 80 years, Zucker explained, New York labor law has excluded these agricultural laborers from protections afforded to most other hourly workers. Federal labor laws passed as part of the New Deal in the 1930s excluded agricultural and domestic workers —  most of whom were people of color. New York and other states later retained these Jim Crow-era exclusions when they passed their own labor laws.

For 20 years, from 1999 to 2019, New York farm workers and their supporters introduced bills that would end these exceptions. The legislation repeatedly passed the State Assembly, but failed to pass the State Senate. Finally, in June 2019, the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act (FFLPA) was passed with the support of a broad coalition of farmworkers, farmworker organizations, civil rights organizations, faith groups, researchers, and advocates. The law granted farmworkers the right to collectively bargain, overtime pay, workers’ compensation regardless of farm size, regular health and safety inspections for farmworker housing, and one full day of rest per week.

Zucker, who led the New York Civil Liberties Union’s campaign in support of the FFLPA, shared with students behind-the-scenes stories of how the legislative roadblock was finally overcome, including the process and strategies of building a legislative coalition, the recruitment of bill sponsors and media attention, the consultations and negotiations with the stakeholders, eleventh-hour legislative dramas, and the ongoing work to fight legal challenges and legislative amendments to ensure that the bill is effectively implemented. 

Every functional coalition is alike,” Zucker said. “Every dysfunctional coalition is dysfunctional in its own way. The most important thing when you’re doing coalition work — in terms of your partners — is trust. It takes a long time to build trust. You don’t get trust of vulnerable communities just because you’re smart. You have to put your head down and do the work.”

Zucker also described how litigation worked in concert with the legislative campaign. In the midst of the campaign, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed and won a landmark case against New York State on behalf of dairy worker Crispin Hernandez. They argued successfully that excluding farmworkers from the right to organize and collectively bargain without fear of retaliation is a violation of the state constitution. “The litigation broke the log jam,” Zucker said. 

Zucker emphasized that New York farmworkers still face significant gaps in protection, even after the FFLPA’s passage. For example, the FFLPA stipulates that the farmworkers may not strike or engage in work stoppage or slowdown — a key negotiating tool.

The Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) is a new initiative at Yale Law School that leads and coordinates a diverse program of activities. It seeks to contribute to defining, expanding, and advancing the field of animal law. Spring 2020 marks the first semester of the CAFE Law and Policy Lab.