ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, on Monday each pushed to protect migrant farm workers' rights, with Kennedy declaring that the workers are abused under remnants of laws aimed at oppressing blacks after the Civil War.
The issue has long been a favorite of New York City Democrats and allied labor unions and activists, some of whom demonstrated in Albany on Monday. The issue's merits, however, have long been disputed upstate and on Long Island by farmers where generations of migrant workers pick fruit and vegetables, often returning every season to the same employer.
Even with Cuomo's support, however, the annual proposal that divides the Assembly dominated by New York City Democrats and the Senate dominated by suburban and rural Republicans faces uncertain odds.
"It is unacceptable that this is going on," Kennedy said. "The reason that they don't have these rights is because they are left over Jim Crow laws." Other states, notably California, have enacted laws to require far more rights, she said, and New York is overdue.
Long committed to the cause, she relayed the story of a worker she met who hadn't dared take a day off for 10 years, whose wife is permanently disabled, but without medical care, and who lived in a 10- by 14-foot room with another married couple and three single men.
Kennedy appeared in Albany with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to support the bill that would give overtime pay, days off, worker's compensation and other benefits to farm workers who pick fruits and vegetables in the state.
Separately, Cuomo said he's also pushing Senate Democrats who, if they united, could out-vote the Republican senators who have blocked the bill for more than a decade. But even that effort will be difficult in the Senate where some key votes even among Democrats come from areas dominated by family farms, rather than sprawling corporations where many of the abuses have been reported.
"That's an issue I know very, very well," Cuomo said. The Democrat from Queens said he saw crushing rural poverty along the Texas border with Mexico when he was the housing secretary for President Bill Clinton.
Kennedy and Cuomo didn't appear together. They share joint custody of their three daughters after what political observers called "Cuomolot" ended in 2002 in a nasty divorce. She is now president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, named for her father.
Cuomo said Monday that he understands the opposition by the state Farm Bureau and will meet with officials there. The bureau argues the abuses are overblown, driven by unions seeking more members, and that most farm hands have good, long-term relationships with their employers.
"A vote in support of the so-called farm worker fair labor practices act is a vote against New York's hard working farm families and the farm workers employed," the Farm Bureau said Monday, slamming the idea as supported by unions college students and downstate legislators who do not "understand either the realities of providing food for our tables."
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua said the bill isn't necessary and would further reduce farmers' ability to survive.
"Agriculture carries a proud legacy here, and its success is critical to our state's prosperity," Kolb said. "This legislation threatens the ability of our farmers to continue that tradition and further impedes their path to prosperity."