The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against Governor Cuomo and the state alleging that loopholes in state labor laws deny farmworkers the right to organize, forcing them into "life-threatening, sweatshop-like conditions." In a statement issued hours after the suit, Cuomo quickly voiced his support for farmworkers and said his administration would not fight the NYCLU lawsuit.

"Because of a flaw in the state labor relations act, farm workers are not afforded the right to organize without fear of retaliation—which is unacceptable," Cuomo said. "We will not tolerate the abuse or exploitation of workers in any industry. This clear and undeniable injustice must be corrected."

In a statement, Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director, called withholding bargaining rights from farmworkers "a holdover, racist policy from the Jim Crow era." As the Times points out, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 gave workers the right to organize, but farmworkers were specifically excluded from those protections. President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed support from white Southern politicians in order to pass the act, and so labor rights for the region's predominantly black agriculture work force were left out of the law.

"Enough is enough. Farmworkers who we depend on to put food on our tables deserve no less dignity and humanity than any other hardworking New Yorker," Lieberman said. The NYCLU says that New York is home to 60,000 farmworkers.

In his statement voicing support for the lawsuit, Cuomo touted his recent involvement in the "Fight for $15" movement to raise the state minimum wage. The Governor had openly mocked the idea of a $15 per hour minimum wage as late as March 2015, but eagerly joined the cause once it was clear that determined labor unions were nearing their goal. "You organize people around that dream, and you will see government follow," Cuomo said.

Still, in March of this year, Cuomo publicly discussed a "special modification for the agricultural industry" so farms wouldn't have to pay $15/hour to workers.

"There are special conditions on farms — we understand that — and we’re putting together a special package for farmers, because they pose a unique problem, they really do," Cuomo said at the time.

The lawsuit criticizes the state government for turning a blind eye to discrimination against farmworkers. Over two decades ago, then-Governor Mario Cuomo commissioned a report on the farm workers' labor conditions; it described employees as "relatively defenseless and powerless" and called for an end to exclusionary loopholes. "“They typically work only part of the year and earn low annual incomes for arduous physical labor. All too many live in deplorable housing and have little recourse against those employers who are unscrupulous," the report found. Still, state lawmakers did nothing.

The NYCLU lawsuit against Cuomo and the state was filed on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from Marks Farms LLC, one of the largest dairies in the state. Hernandez's employer saw him discussing workplace conditions with other coworkers after clocking out for the day, and promptly fired him. The man had been working 12 hour shifts, six days a week, at the dairy facility. "Without farmworkers there would not be milk, fruits or vegetables, but we are treated like slaves and worse than the cows," Hernandez said.

New York's dairy and farming industries brought in over $6 billion in sales during 2014, yet the average farmworker's pay in 2015 amounted to $28,430, well below the state average.

"We want to be able to improve our working conditions without fear or intimidation," Hernandez said in a statement. "We believe our lives are important and that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

New York Farm Bureau's president Dean Norton says he is "extremely disappointed" about the governor's change of heart, and called the NYCLU's claims "erroneous, insulting and disparaging."