By Marcus E. Howard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday he would not defend a state law that excludes farmworkers from the right to unionize, hours after the state was sued by a dairy worker who claimed he had been fired for meeting with labor organizers.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed the lawsuit on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who said he lost his job in September at Mark Farms, a large dairy farm in upstate New York where he worked for three years. The other plaintiffs were employee rights groups Worker Justice Center of New York and Workers' Center of Central New York.
The lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Albany against Cuomo and the state of New York seeks to provide farmworkers the right to organize without fear of retaliation, court documents showed. New York is the nation's fourth largest dairy producer behind California, Wisconsin and Idaho, the lawsuit said.
"I agree with the NYCLU that the exclusion of farm workers from the labor relations act is inconsistent with our constitutional principles, and my administration will not be defending the act in court," Cuomo said in a press statement. "We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry."
The lawsuit said a Mark Farms manager called the police in August after he saw Hernandez meeting with a Workers' Center of Central New York representative on farm property after work. Hernandez was fired a month later.
Such interference with organizing unions happens repeatedly on New York farms, the lawsuit stated.
Mark Farms did not immediately return a request for comment.
About 75 percent of New York's farmworkers are not U.S. citizens, the lawsuit said. Many speak only Spanish, work long hours in dangerous conditions, are paid low wages and live in rented farm-owned housing comparable to labor camps, it added.
Erin Beth Harrist, the New York Civil Liberty Union's lead attorney in the case, said the law was a holdover from racist policies from the 1930s, and that efforts to change it have been blocked by the New York Farm Bureau, an influential trade group.
"We're really just asking for a declaration that the exclusion of farmworker from the definition of employee is unconstitutional," Harrist said in a phone interview.
The farm bureau declined to discuss the case. Spokesman Steve Ammerman in a statement called the right to organize a "labor union tactic" ill-suited for farms.
(Reporting by Marcus E. Howard; Editing by Richard Chang)