For Immediate Release:       Contact: Rebecca Fuentes 315-657-6799

September 4, 2015 Carly Fox 585-500-9409

Dairy Workers Fired for Meeting with Worker Rights Advocates

Lowville, NY — Two Marks Farm employees were fired on September 1 after meeting with worker rights advocates to discuss English language classes and farm working conditions. A week prior, on August 24, Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers’ Center of Central New York met with five workers in their home when Christopher Peck of Marks Farm called the state and county police. Peck claimed that Fuentes was trespassing and threatening to have her arrested. Police questioned Fuentes and the workers, but made no arrests.

“We told Peck that Rebecca was our guest, but he still called the police.  Who was he protecting?  We were fired because they had too many workers? This is false; this is retaliation,” reported one of the fired workers.  Farmworkers living in labor camps are afforded the rights of tenants, including “the right to receive guests of their choice without interference from the farmer” (1991 New York State Attorney General formal opinion).

During a subsequent visit to the farm labor camp on August 31, two of the original five workers met again with Fuentes, joined by Workers’ Center volunteers and Carly Fox from the Rochester-based Worker Justice Center of New York. In an apparent attempt to intimidate the workers and their advocates, Peck pulled up alongside the group in a jeep carrying two dogs, including a large German Shepherd. The following day, on September 1, farm supervisors instructed the two workers who had been seen with Fuentes and Fox to sign English language exit interview forms, stating that they were being laid off. The supervisors did not offer any translation to the Spanish-speaking workers and became angry when the workers requested a copy of the form. Following the police visit on August 24, the farm hired new employees and one of the fired workers unknowingly had been training his replacement.

“This farm offers no dignity or respect. The others are petrified. We have to pay for our protective gear, some have no time to eat, and we are not trained to do this dangerous work,” stated one of the fired workers. On May 1, Marks Farm was the site of a protest for an alleged beating and firing of a worker by manager Mike Tabolt. Fuentes commented, “Marks Farm has sent a clear message to its workers that if you speak up, you will be beat up or fired.”

In 2013, Marks Farm employees met with OSHA to discuss poor housing and safety conditions. In 2009, the farm dumped liquefied manure into the Black River, resulting from a reservoir wall breakage, destroying fishing and recreation on the river.

In New York State, as in most states, farmworkers are not covered by collective bargaining protections.  They may be fired without redress for meeting together to discuss improving their workplace.  “In other industries this is called retaliation and it is against the law. I have repeatedly met vulnerable and abused farmworkers who are in desperate need of these protections,” stated Fox.  The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S1291/A4762-2015), sponsored by state Senator Espaillat would extend collective bargaining protections as well as the right to overtime pay and the right to a day of rest for farm laborers.  In July, Governor Cuomo, in response to widespread labor abuses in nail salons, announced a 10-agency joint task force to focus on worker abuse, including on farms.

Marks farm has $3.7 million in annual revenue, according to Business Source Complete, putting it in the top 20 dairy farms in NYS.  According to the Marks Farm website, it employs 55 workers to handle more than 4500 dairy cows, replacement heifers, and calves—a 1700% increase over a decade.  The farm is a member of the Dairy Farmers of America Cooperative, which is a significant supplier to Kraft Foods.  In Lowville, Kraft Foods runs its largest Philadelphia Cream Cheese factory.

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Notes to Editor:

  • On Monday, Labor Day, workers and advocates will gather at the NYS Fair to discuss working conditions.

  • This is the second time in two months that a Lewis County dairy farmer has called the police in to eject Fuentes.

  • OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration) instituted a Local Emphasis Program in 2013 to address widespread health and safety issues on New York’s dairy farms.

  • The Dairy industry is consolidating and Marks Farms is just one example of exponential growth. The farms have had to adopt new management techniques to deal with their expanded workforces.

  • Ample video, audio, and images are available to illustrate these instances.

Carly Fox
Worker Rights Advocate
Workplace Justice Program
Worker Justice Center of NY
1187 Culver Road
Rochester, NY 14609
(585) 500-9409