Victor Hernandez knows how dangerous close proximity to a 1,000-pound cow can be. He was once kicked in the hand so hard, his finger bent back to his wrist. He was cracked in the face by a door after a cow rammed into it. He was even smashed into a post and knocked unconscious by a bucking heifer.
That time, he was working with the farmer owner who left him lying on the ground for several minutes until he came to. She refused to take him to the hospital and told him he could lay down in his bed only when he finished herding cattle to another facility, Hernandez said.
But after three years on a dairy farm, the worst injury Hernandez sustained was of the repetitive-use variety. He said he developed a serious arm injury after performing the same motions thousands of times a day, six days a week. Hernandez worked 12-hour shifts — typical for dairy farm workers — at a farm in Wyoming County, near Rochester.
That arm injury impeded his range of motion, prevented him from working and left him homeless. He could no longer bunk at a hovel on the farmers’ property.
Ultimately, the injury hastened his participation in a movement to ensure New York farmworkers, and dairy farmworkers in particular, have the same rights and protections as laborers in almost every sector.
“The conditions are not suitable for human beings,” says Hernandez, who moved to the United States from Guatemala. “Cows are animals and sometimes they are calm and at other times they kick and buck and they can hurt you. But sometimes the cows are more reasonable than the bosses.”
Some employers withhold wages or neglect the ramshackle living quarters where workers stay and the undocumented immigrants who make up more than 90 percent of the workforce have little recourse, Hernandez and advocates say. They are stranded on the farms, do not have a right to organize and face the threat of being detained by immigration enforcement.
Hernandez and his colleagues are demanding reforms at the state level that would enable farmworkers to organize and allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses so that they can move freely in rural upstate hamlets.
Advocates also say New York City has a role to play in ensuring fair conditions. The city can use its purchasing power to influence conditions throughout the dairy supply chain and make consumers aware of the problems facing workers and farmers, they say.
“We want all New Yorkers to know that the people who put the food on the table, our rights are not being respected,” Hernandez says. “We need all of the people who drink milk, eat fruits, eat vegetables to really support us to know how the workers are living.”
Danger down on the farm
Dairy farming is big business in New York State, the fourth biggest milk producer in the country and one of the top five biggest producers of yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream and cottage cheese. The state produced 14.7 billion pounds of milk from about 625,000 cows in 2017, according to the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Dairy is also dangerous business.
The New York State Department of Health recorded 81 work-related deaths on dairy farms between 2006 and 2016. Dairy farm deaths accounted for nearly half of the 163 total work-related deaths on all farms in the state.
Owners of small farms make up the majority of work-related farm deaths, the Department of Health says, but the agency acknowledges that other organizations that collect data about deaths on farms may report different statistics related to all deaths on farms.
Injury statistics also vary by source.
“Nobody actually has a clue about the types and incidences of injuries in agriculture,” Dr. John May, director of the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health, told the Times Union in 2014. “In virtually every other industry in the country … there are reasonably good statistics on how many injuries are occurring.”
Many deaths go uninvestigated because farms with fewer than ten employees are exempt from Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement.
The report “Milked,” written by organizers at the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, says that OSHA conducted an inspection of just four of the 34 deaths that occurred between 2007 and 2012. The other 30 took place on farms with fewer than 10 employees.
The deaths include one person who asphyxiated on methane gas after getting trapped in a manure tank, says Adelphi University political science professor Margaret Gray, an advocate for farmworkers. Another got his head stuck in a manure separator machine.
“In so many ways, dairy is the ultimate U.S. farm product and that’s the way it’s marketed,” Gray says. “Dairy is held up as the model of the family farm, but it is closer to a factory job than to a diverse vegetable operation.”
In addition to handling unpredictable cows, dairy farmers operate heavy duty machinery without much training, which can lead to injury or death, Gray said.
Undocumented farmworkers say there is one piece of heavy machinery that could help them escape their plight: cars. Drivers licenses would enable them to leave the farms and organize with other workers, or simply allow them to stop paying taxi drivers or raiteros — drivers who transport groups of low-wage workers for a fee — just to get to the grocery store to buy the food they produced.
Workers report getting paid less than they are owed — Hernandez said he worked 72 hours a week, but regularly got paid for 40 — and living in unsafe, unsanitary housing, sometimes connected to the facilities that shelter the animals. At one farm in Cayuga County, the town condemned the worker housing on a farm and cited the farmer for building an uncertified septic tank that emptied into the farm’s manure pit.
“I have seen housing so broken down there are snakes slithering around behind stoves and they are full of cockroaches and bedbugs,” Hernandez says.
Steve Ammerman, spokesperson for the New York Farm Bureau that represents the interests of farmers, insists that there may be “a few bad apples in the bunch,” but most farmers care about their employees’ health and safety.
“What we hear from members is that safety has to be first and foremost for farmers and employees as well as family members,” Ammerman says. “Even when times are tough you can’t scrimp on that.”
Right now, times are tough for dairy farmers.
Despite the overall increase in production, roughly 550 dairy farms closed in New York between 2012 and 2017 as a surplus of milk flooded the market from around the country, farms consolidated and processing conglomerates tightened their grip on purchasing. Faced with overwhelming debt, some farmers have committed suicide.
“It’s a challenge right now for most dairy farmers to make a living,” Ammerman says. “I’ve had numerous farmers tell me their workers are making more than they are because of economic climate of dairy farms today.”
Sam Simon runs the Hudson Valley Fresh cooperative, which purchases premium quality milk from farms in Dutchess, Columbia and Ulster Counties and sells to local colleges, Hudson Valley supermarkets and high-end stores in and around New York City, like Dean and Deluca and Eataly. The cooperative guarantees a higher rate of payment to farmers that enables the farms to say solvent, Simon says.
Hudson Valley Fresh’s stringent quality demands and limited catchment zone disqualify many farmers but enable member farms to avoid dealing with massive processing companies that can deflate prices.
“The problem is farmers are dealing with a perishable item and they have to move it so they have to take whatever the price is,” Simon says. “They have no bargaining power as a united group.”
Cooperatives like Dairy Farmers of America, Dean Foods and Land O’ Lakes control more than three-quarters of dairy processing facilities, the places where most farmers need to sell their milk.
“Dean Food dictates what they’re going to pay and you need to move your product in 48 hours so you’re going to say ‘thank you’ and take it,” Simon says. “I feel for the farmers who are busting their asses and are behind the eight ball, losing every day.”
Advocates for farm workers and farmers agree that both groups are struggling. They also agree on some solutions.
The Farm Bureau has advocated for immigration reform that would enable undocumented immigrants to work legally and free them from the threat of deportation, though the organization has not taken a position on the issue of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Where farmers and farmworkers diverge is the issue of organized labor.
Farm workers have no legal right to organize in New York State. In 2017, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of farm workers and a coalition of advocacy groups to challenge the exclusion of farm workers from the State Employment Relations Act, a law that prevents employers in nearly all other sectors from firing employees who attempt to organize.
Lead plaintiff Crispin Hernandez, no relation to Victor, was allegedly fired from his job after his employer saw him talking to an organizer from the Workers’ Center of Central New York. Crispin Hernandez says he hoped to unite other workers to advocate for better work gloves.
Former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman declined to defend the 1937 law, which was modeled after the National Labor Relations Act that excluded Southern farm workers, who were predominantly black, from New Deal labor reforms.
The Farm Bureau decided to challenge the lawsuit in the state’s place. In January, the court dismissed the case, saying it was up to the legislature to amend labor law, not the judicial branch.
“It isn’t that farmers don’t want to pay more,” Paul Fouts, a dairy farmer and local Farm Bureau official, wrote in a letter to the editor of Syracuse.com “It is they can’t afford to pay more, especially in this down farm economy when dairy farms in particular can’t set their own prices. Mandating additional wage rates would only make a dire situation worse and put our farms at a further competitive disadvantage against states and countries that have much cheaper wage rates.”
In June, the NYCLU filed an appeal with the State Supreme Court Appellate division in Albany
Exerting municipal purchasing power
Farmworker and labor advocates say that big cities like New York could play a role in compelling processors, distributors and farmers to ensure fair conditions, though it could end up costing more to ensure farmers and farm workers all get a fair shake.
New York City is one of the biggest dairy buyers in the country and farmworkers, advocates and labor experts say the city could use its purchasing power to influence conditions throughout the supply chain.
“City contracts are one way to leverage economic power,” says Chaumtoli Huq, a CUNY Law professor and a labor lawyer. “New York City hasn’t really used its purchasing power to [help] more vulnerable folks along the supply chain, and they could.”
In 2014, the Department of Education entered into a $123,112,720 contract with Bartlett Dairy, which lasts until 2019, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer’s 2015 fiscal year contract report.
In May 2008, the DOE awarded three five-year milk distribution contracts totaling $134,139,354 to three vendors. The contracts came under scrutiny in 2014 when Stringer said the vendors might have colluded to carve out distribution zones and ensure they did not underbid each other.
Despite the large contracts, Huq says she is not aware of the city using its purchasing power when it comes to food.
The city has frequently considered divesting from exploitative companies or whole industries plagued by problems, however. Huq worked for Public Advocate Letitia James and says the city considered divesting from brands involved in the 2013 Savar building collapse that killed more than 1100 sweatshop workers producing clothes for Western companies in Bangladesh. Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined London Mayor Sadiq Khan to encourage cities to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
The city has also made sweeping milk-related decisions before. Between 2005 and 2009, the DOE stopped serving whole milk.
Huq called on New York and other big cities to wield their power to affect supply chains.
“This is the direction we need to go as the economy becomes much more complex,” she says.
Cornell University agriculture and business professor Andy Novakovic says he is unaware of cities and states using their purchasing power to address conditions for farmworkers, but he says governments do influence purchasing by buying locally produced goods — so long as the move is cost-effective.
“The challenge is that government entities have a fiscal obligation to use money frugally,” says Novakovic, a member of the International Dairy Federation. “If local is cheap then that’s great and you’re done, but if it’s much more expensive then the government faces the issue of fiscal prudence.”
New York State General Municipal Law gives city agencies discretion when making purchases and does not compel municipalities to choose the cheapest option, however.
The Mayor’s Office of Contract Services outlines purchasing guideline and advises agencies that they may “mandate that a particular product, e.g., apples, come from New York State thereby limiting competition to bidders that can supply such products, rather than similar products sourced from other locations” on contracts worth more than $100,000.
The guidelines also state that the city “strives to provide clients with healthy, fresh and delicious food that is sustainably produced and transported.”
Novakovic pointed to an initiative by Vermont farm workers to pressure Ben and Jerry’s to sign onto a code of conduct called Milk with Dignity as a model for a city could consider. The effort was organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the organization Migrant Justice. By signing the agreement, the ice cream maker pledged to source dairy products from farms that guarantee state minimum wage, give workers the right to one off-day a week and provide workers with housing that has a bed, electricity and clean water.
Gray also highlighted the Milk with Dignity model as a way for cities to potentially exert influence and educate consumers.
“It would be incredible if New York City adopted a code of conduct for the dairy they have in schools and jails,” she says.
That initiative would likely take years to implement as processing plants and farmers adjust their practices, she says.
But the city may be taking the first steps by listening to advocates, says Suzanne Adely, an attorney and New York City regional organizer at the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
Adely says the Center for Good Food Purchasing and affiliated organizations strive to conduct a baseline assessment of food sourcing in at least two city agencies.
Through the Good Food Purchasing Program, the center partners with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and various other organizations to adopt a five-point food sourcing policy. GFPP cities like Los Angeles and Chicago agree to purchase local, nutritious and environmentally sustainable foods from companies that treat animals humanely and uphold workers’ rights throughout the supply chain.
“We’re in the process of getting prepared [in New York],” Adely says. “Once information on New York City food procurement comes out, then we will be able to say, ‘This is what policy we would like to see pass in NYC.’”
In 2012, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued an executive order directing all city agencies to adopt the GFPP. The Los Angeles Unified School District — which serves 650,000 meals a day —signed onto the policy a few weeks later.
In 2016, advocates from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and other organizations used the GFPP agreement to pressure the LAUSD not to renew a contract with chicken giant Tyson. They said Tyson violated work safety regulations and fostered unsafe and unfair working conditions for poultry workers. The LAUSD eventually contracted with poultry company Gold Star, which advocates said has consistently better workplace conditions.
Center for Good Food Purchasing Director of Engagement Colleen McKinney says cities that have signed onto the GFPP policy have not experienced significant cost increases.
“In our experience in other cities, we have never heard from an institution that says they have spent significantly more on food,” McKinney said. “In general, we hear their prices stay the same and in one case went down slightly.”
McKinney said the Oakland Unified School District ended up saving money after adopting the GFPP guidelines.
She says the program encourages cities to make incremental changes, in part by considering how savings on some food items could enable them to purchase more expensive items that meet GFPP standards, such as sustainable beef.
“The way that the current industrial food system is set up is a lot of hidden costs,” she says. “Food is cheap for a reason and the costs are being borne somewhere.”
Adely acknowledges that ensuring fair treatment and a living income for farm workers and farmers alike could indeed mean cost increases for consumers, including cities, but she is comfortable with that.
“Even if there is a cost increase, we still think that the standards in the long-term are more beneficial to the city,” Adely says.
To many advocates, however, it’s not enough to rely on local governments to hold corporations accountable through food purchasing or to expect corporations to make decisions that could jeopardize their own profits.
Worker Justice Center of New York organizer Carly Fox says empowering workers to organize is the only way to ensure workplace safety and equity.
“We need a union to protect dairy farmers,” Fox says. “They can’t even start organizing to improve their conditions. The industry is rife with problems and that’s the only way we’re going to fix them.”
CityPlate, City Limits’ series on food policy, is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for the content.