May 1, 2003
Marching Toward Justice
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
As the marchers walking on behalf of New York’s migrant and seasonal farmworkers stopped for dinner at Blessed Sacrament Parish Hall on April 23, they were soaked from showers typical of April. And as they took off their waterlogged shoes, one could see the blisters on the soles of their feet from the hundreds of miles they had walked in the past four days. Their spirits, though, were high, and neither bad weather nor sore feet would stop them from bringing their message to Albany. The bright red t-shirts they were wearing that read “Equal rights for New York’s farmworkers” said it all. Since April 21, farmworkers, students, union members and clergy from across Western New York have been marching from Seneca Falls to Albany on a 330-mile trek to raise awareness of the plight of New York’s farmworkers. Although agriculture is America’s leading business, grossing $3 billion dollars a year, the farmworkers who put food on the tables are denied basic rights, including a day of rest, overtime pay, disability insurance, and collective bargining.
Currently, New York’s farmworkers labor 12-hour days, seven days a week, underneath summer’s scorching sun with none of the protections most workers take for granted. Deacon David Sweenie, director of the Spanish Apostolate in Oswego County who ministers to the county’s migrant workers, said that it is a shame that conditions like these exist in New York, home of the American labor movement. “New York, once a very progressive state, is now lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of workers’ rights. It’s very sad,” Sweenie said, adding that the current agricultural minimum wage is below $5 an hour.
Ieisro Ostiz, 25, has been working in the fields of Oswego County for the past five years. Speaking through a translator, he explained the hardships that he and his friends, some as young as 14, have faced working in the fields. Farmworkers labor under all conditions, including blistering sun and harsh wind and rain. In addition, they are often injured and are forced to pay out of pocket for their care, said Ostiz. He recalled a friend who was working in the field and got sick from the pesticides being sprayed on the vegetables. “He needed medical attention, but he was forced to get up and keep working,” Ostiz said.
Ostiz pointed out that the physical abuse, though unbearable at times, is easier to deal with than the verbal assaults. “People shout, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ to my family and me. They do not understand that I am here to make a living,” he said, adding that without a high school diploma it is difficult to find something to support his family.
While farmworkers are not legally allowed to form unions to bargain collectively to change working conditions, many are risking their livelihood marching to Albany. Some of his friends, Ostiz noted, were scared to march. But he was not intimidated, Ostiz said. “We are just like everyone else. We march because we want justice and equal rights,” said Ostiz. “Why shouldn’t we have this?” Once they reach Albany on April 30, the marchers will visit Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s office to request that he call for the passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The act has been passed in the Assembly in the last two sessions, but it has failed in the Senate –– and the members of the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign hold Bruno responsible. “If Bruno wanted to get this act passed, he easily has the authority to do so,” said Jim Schmidt, director of Farmworker Legal Services in Rochester, who has been marching since Seneca Falls. “Reform will only come when he wants it.”
Schmidt pointed out that the status quo has remained because politicians like Bruno are hesitant to pass laws on behalf of the farmworkers. The concerns of farmworkers, Schmidt said, have zero weight compared to the interests of “big business members” from rural districts, whose fortunes are rooted to the growers. In the past six years that the farmworkers have been gathering at Albany, there have been some small concessions to workers, such as access to drinking water on the job and toilet facilities in the fields. But these provisions are not adequate as long as farmworkers are without the most basic human rights, Sweenie said. “Many of these people have come to America in search of a better life, but what they have found is inhumane conditions and people ready to exploit them,” said Sweenie. “How long will this continue before something is changed?”