ALBANY — Citing New York legislation that gives farmworkers the right to join unions, a coalition of labor organizations is waging a campaign to pressure yogurt maker Chobani, a major upstate employer, to protect the rights of agricultural workers to organize.
The controversial statute, backed by New York's politically influential unions, was approved this year in Albany despite strong opposition from the New York Farm Bureau and many upstate lawmakers.
Chobani, which operates a sprawling production facility in rural Chenango County, is believed to be the first upstate food producer to face a public pressure campaign by labor groups linking the drive to the new legislation.
The labor groups involved in the effort include the Workers Center of Central New York, SEIU 32BJ and the AFL-CIO's Farm Worker Labor Organizing Committee. In announcing the campaign targeting Chobani, the coalition said the company "has refused to commit to respecting union organizing rights".
In an open letter to Chobani Chief Executive Officer Hamdi Ulukaya, the coalition contended "many dairy farm workers live in substandard, squalid housing on the farms that supply Chobani."
Chobani has been acquiring its milk from a cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America. The labor groups complained that Chobani's food certification partner, Fair Trade USA, continued to certify a Central American melon producer for firing workers involved in union activity.
The labor groups then went on the missive to call on Ulukaya, an immigrant from Turkey who started the company at a former Kraft cheese plant, to "set an example" and make a commitment to supporting workers' rights to join unions.
Contacted by CNHI, Chobani argued it has been respectful of workers' rights.
“We know that dairy farming requires exceptional care and effort, and the people who do this demanding, important work every day, year round, in good weather and bad, deserve to feel protected and supported,” Chobani said in a statement.
“We absolutely respect their right to organize, and share their commitment to improve worker welfare, safety and legal status," the company added. "We’re fighting for the same progress — just taking different approaches.”
The farmworker legislation drew strong opposition from the New York Farm Bureau, which had managed to block earlier versions of the legislation with help from Republican allies. With Democrats gaining control of the statehouse this year, the measure was approved by both houses and was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat. It takes effect in January.
The legislation, in addition to extending collective bargaining rights to farm laborers, requires employers to allow at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, provides for a 60-hour work week for the workers and requires sanitary conditions in housing farmers provide to workers.
One of the upstate lawmakers who broke ranks with the Farm Bureau on the controversial legislation was Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, a first-term lawmaker who led the Senate Agriculture Committee this year.
Metzger's office offered no immediate comment on the labor group's mention of the legislation in the pressure campaign now directed at Chobani.
But Assemblyman Clifford Crouch, R-Chenango County, said the labor groups are now exploiting the legislation to pressure Chobani to "intimidate" farmers in a way that could potentially motivate the company to get milk from outside New York.
Crouch also said unions "manufactured a crisis" by alleging the exploitation of farm workers is common on upstate farms.
"I have been to many New York farms and I've never seen workers living in squalid conditions," the lawmaker said. He contended farmers have incentive to pay workers "well" because if they don't the workers would seek employment elsewhere.
Chobani is getting pressure from the labor groups because "it is a very important player in the food chain," said Rebecca Fuentes, leader organizer at the Syracuse-based Workers' Center of Central New York.
"When you look at who is making the most money, it is the people at the top, like Chobani, so they have a responsibility to make sure that the conditions get better for workers," Fuentes said.
Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said the labor coalition's depiction of the conditions faced by laborers on New York farms is unfounded.
"The farm labor bill hasn't even gone into effect and already we are seeing more of the same tactics that activists are using to perpetuate falsehoods about dairy," Ammerman said.
At legislative hearings and during farm tours, Ammerman said, farmworkers "overwhelmingly partnered with farmers sharing stories of good working conditions, competitive wages and proactive safety training workshops."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com