What's Missing From Our Thanksgiving Menus? Justice for Farm Workers

How we eat is one of the central ways we show who we are and what we care about, but what's almost entirely impossible is to put food on the table that was produced by workers who enjoy the same rights as almost every other laborer in America.
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Pity the poor food writers, who need a new theme for each year's pre-Thanksgiving spread of food porn. One year was 'America the Melting Pot,' with recipes for Peking-Duck style turkey and a vaguely Mexican cornbread stuffing with jalapeños, and last year's 'food from every state' left me with a South Carolina Salty Pluff Mud Pie so good that I dare not reappear without it. This year's theme seems to be the challenge of crafting a menu that works for carnivores, Paleos, vegans, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, nut-allergic, kosher, or any combination thereof; our groaning dessert table will feature four different apple pies, all meticulously labeled to indicate what is safe and for whom.

How we eat is one of the central ways we show who we are and what we care about, but what's almost entirely impossible is to put food on the table that was produced by workers who enjoy the same rights as almost every other laborer in America. Sure, we can show off our food ethics by making stuffing with free-range chicken eggs, buying a heritage turkey, or accompanying pies with ice cream made with milk from antibiotic-free cows. We can support the local food system by buying from farmer's markets. We can even drink local with top-notch Hudson Valley hard ciders. But unless we grew it ourself, almost every single morsel of food on our Thanksgiving table was produced by workers who, under federal law and most state laws, lack rights to collective bargaining, overtime pay, worker's compensation without fear of retaliation, and other basic rights enjoyed by other American workers. On a holiday meant to express our gratitude for the harvest, we do little to honor those who are actually doing the harvesting for us.

The ugly history of agricultural workers' exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act is that to pass the bill, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut a deal with the Southern Democrats, whose racism led them to oppose expansion of labor rights for agricultural workers and domestic workers. The continued exclusion of agricultural workers from the protections afforded to almost every other kind of worker in the U.S. -- citizen or not -- is one of the last remnants of the Jim Crow South. As debates rage about how to make both symbolic and structural changes to redress our nation's history of racial injustice, this denial of basic labor rights to agricultural workers should surely be among our chief objects of effort.

What about Cesar Chavez? Didn't we boycott grapes way back when? Yes, but those changes that Chavez and Dolores Huerta brought were just in California, at the state level. Here in New York, 30 years later, workers are still waiting.

This need not be the case. For years, a statewide coalition of labor-rights advocates have supported New York's Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, which would give agricultural workers the right to organize and bargain collectively; a day of rest; overtime pay; guarantees of minimum standards for housing quality; expand workers' compensation eligibility and assure protection from retaliation for filing injury claim.

For years, the bill has passed the Assembly, with the current Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan actually one of the bill's prime sponsors from 2005 to 2008. Some key Republican senators who might be swayed -- Jack Martin, Philip Boyle, Andrew Lanza, Kemp Hannon, and Charles Fuschillo -- represent districts where an email from a constituent asking them to support SB 1743 could make all the difference. Democrats Simcha Felder and David Carlucci owe their constituents -- few if any of whom are farmers -- an explanation for their failure to stand with fellow New York Democrats on this bill.

So as you drift off in a haze of tryptophan for the four-day weekend, remember that those who pick our apples may work through the entire harvest season without a day off. Facing a long winter with no income, they might prefer to work without rest, or they might be lucky enough to work for farmers who are decent people and offer them the option of a day of rest -- but a worker's rights shouldn't depend on the boss's character. As you congratulate yourselves on the inclusiveness of your menu, or while you're waiting to get into the mall on Friday, take five minutes to e-mail your Senator. Show some genuine gratitude for the state's bounty, and honor the hands that harvest it, by asking that agricultural workers be granted the same rights as every other worker in New York State.

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