They have a ton of staff. They explicitly work for social justice and human rights. They go into the homes of farmworkers and tell them their rights, sometimes facing shotgun-wielding agriculturalist landlords in the process.
Yes. There’s a group in Rochester that goes into the fields and faces down farmer-aristocrats to give the workers legal protection. And they’re even government-funded.
The Workers Justice Center comes out of a merger of two different groups just a little while ago. Now, they have an office in Rochester, an office in Kingston, and a small satellite office in Albany. But don’t be fooled – they have contacts and power around the state.
The Rochester group (you might know them by their old name – Farmworker Legal Service of NY) operates out of a nondescript office on the eastern part of Culver road. Their staff includes lawyers, directors, and support. Their staff also includes many people who actually drive down to talk personally to farmworkers day after day. It’s inspiring.
So what does the Worker Justice Center (WJC) actually do? They have six areas of expertise:
- Anti-Human Trafficking
- Know Your Rights for workers
- Domestic Violence legal aid.
- Workplace Safety Training
- Advocacy and Lobbying
- Community Engagement with partners about the above 5 items.
Let’s drill down into a few of these, shall we?
WJC has set up 4 different roundtables (they call them task forces) in the state. Each taskforce has local nonprofits, legal aid groups, law enforcement, business groups, goverment agencies, etc. They all work together on human trafficking issues. And this is the real deal – just a few days ago, for example, staffer Renan Salgado just got back from a trip to Mexico on assignment.
Know Your Rights and legal aid
WJC shows up to the homes of farmworkers and educates them about the legal protections they do have. Often, workers live on the property of their employer. Those employers don’t like that WJC visits (sometimes to the points of calling police, waving shotguns, making threats, etc), but the law is on their side! Tenants anywhere have a right to invite guests over. Did you know that?
It goes beyond just education, however. WJC has a network of contacts and informants. When an employer abuses their employees – physical harassment, wage theft, abuse, whatever – they meet with the workers and take the case as far as it needs to go – often in court.
Advocacy and Lobbying
Farmworkers don’t have the same rights as the rest of us do. They don’t have the right to collective bargaining, overtime pay, a day of rest, or disability insurance. At least, not in New York. The WJC is part of a statewide coalition to lobby to fix it. Every year, the bill, “Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act” just barely loses in the Senate. This year, WJC has joined the statewide committee of the coalition to pass it.
The big picture:
The WJC is unusally kickass for a legal aid nonprofit. Though they take government grants, they consciously steer clear of those with strings too tightly attached, and supplement their revenue from other sources, which funds their advocacy work. (Since it’s illegal to lobby on the government’s dime).
They aren’t a union, and aren’t trying to organize workers into one. Instead, they’re building a network of people who can call for help instantly when their rights are being violated. WJC then builds a case with the people under attack, and they jointly decide whether to accept a settlement, fight in court, etc.
“With farmworkers and agriculturalists, it’s David versus Goliath. We always side with David”
The WJC prides itself on always siding with the “Davids” that are farmworkers, and has been known to throw hasty rallies outside police stations to keep people from deportation. At the same time, they still have good relationships with law enforcement through their joint work on human trafficking.
It’s an impressive balancing act that they’re pulling off. So far it’s been working out well. They’re soon going to help setup a new anti-trafficking taskforce for the Southern Tier, and their contacts with workers are so extensive that they’re hiring extra staff to deal with the influx of cases.