Lynn Marie Harter, passionate fighter for the interests of the working class, farm worker organizer, fighter for comprehensive health care for all, baker extraordinaire, skilled journalistic writer, full-time volunteer organizer her entire adult life, died on July 20, 2020 at her home in Brooklyn, New York after a long battle with metastasized ovarian cancer. She was one month short of her 50th birthday.
Lynn was born August 28, 1970 at Providence Hospital in Holyoke Massachusetts to Donald and Ann Harter, and grew up in Westfield, a suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts. As production moved abroad, and American workers’ pay began to drop, businesses, even large ones, began to fold, including Norcross Greeting Card Company, for which her father had worked. Her dad got two jobs, her mom worked 50-60 hours a week, and the children, including Lynn, eventually also began working to support the family. Lynn would remember, “We had been the typical ‘middle class’ family and my parents still thought of themselves as middle class, but I thought there was something very wrong here. My parents would even say that poor people were poor because they were lazy. We were obviously struggling economically and my parents worked hard, so I decided that there had to be something wrong in how the economy worked if people like us worked so hard and yet we struggled to afford basic necessities.”
During high school and college Lynn worked part-time and summer jobs as a cashier at Kmart and as a picker in a school supply warehouse, often having to compete for those jobs with temporary workers trying to feed a family. Lynn also worked several summers picking tobacco at Gilbert S. Arnold Tobacco, a tobacco farm. This is where Lynn learned about the working conditions for farm workers and how hard farm work is. The company also had a crew of migrant workers from Jamaica, whom the farmer tried to keep separate from the white college and high school kids. In the few brief encounters with the migrant workers, the workers would show the local students pictures of wives and children they had left behind to come to the U.S. to work. They were separated from their families for 6-8 months of the year. The migrant workers labored sun-up to sundown, working many more hours than the local students. Lynn witnessed how hard they had to work, while earning very little money.
In 1995, Lynn had an opportunity to organize on behalf of farm workers, whose exploitation she had herself experienced first-hand, when she joined Eastern Farm Workers Association in Central New York as Administrative Assistant.
Steve Minton, former EFWA Operations Manager in Central New York remembers Lynn’s leadership after a 1998 storm when tornado strength winds on Labor Day knocked out most of the power in the city of Syracuse where EFWA’s Office Central was located. “The office had no power for 2 weeks and some membership areas lacked electricity for 3-4 weeks. Lynn took the lead as EFWA built its membership and established a new benefit office on the near west side to deal with the needs generated by the storm damage.
“By 2003, we were expanding our membership to dairy farm workers, many of them from Mexico and Guatemala, and Lynn learned about and began to explain the adverse impact of free trade agreements on the lives of both the dairy workers and the farmers themselves. She was instrumental in the organization’s recruitment of both dairy workers and dairy farmers, some of whom join EFWA in speaking at public hearings against utility rate increases to this day.”
Members of EFWA remember Lynn’s tenacity and fighting spirit. Ann Reynolds, Advisory Committee member and WBC delegate, recalled, “When my husband was sick, I got a bill for $125,000 from the hospital. They said I made $5 or $10 a month too much to qualify for assistance. Lynn leapt into the fray, working to find someone who would listen to reason. She persevered, and, eventually, got me the assistance I needed.”
Ten years after going to work with Central New York EFWA Lynn took on the role of EFWA Operations Manager. Shortly after assuming this position, in October of 2005, there was an explosion at one of the farm worker housing buildings on the DeMarco Farms labor camp in Phoenix, NY, in which Mexican and Guatemalan farm workers were housed, killing one and critically injuring nine of the workers. They found EFWA membership materials in the rubble. ICE officers showed up at the hospital to interrogate them while they were still in the Emergency Room, citing the Patriot Act.
Soon after, ICE officers showed up at the EFWA office demanding to see the membership database. Cheryl Darby, Advisory Committee member, member, and captain of the Supplemental Food Distribution, recalls: “I was in the office that day, working the front desk. I saw all these officers coming, so I called Lynn, and told her: “There’s all these police here! They’re going all around the building!” Lynn told me, “Don’t talk, don’t answer any questions!” We’re a private membership organization, so they don’t have the right to know anything about our members. While they were talking to Lynn, some of them tried to get me to tell them things, but Lynn had already told me we shouldn’t answer questions. And I didn’t. And we won. She taught me a lot.”
Lynn explained to the officers that EFWA was a private membership association, and its membership was protected under the First Amendment right of Freedom of Association and refused to give them any membership records. When they returned with a subpoena they had written themselves, Lynn refused them access to the office, and called a volunteer attorney, who reinforced EFWA’s rights to protect the privacy of its membership. His support convinced the ICE officers to leave empty-handed.
Ben Lee, who was Administrative Assistant at EFWA from 2011 through 2016, spoke of Lynn’s passion in fighting against utility rate hikes and shutoffs. “Over the course of nearly a decade, Lynn led the fight to hold the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) accountable to the ratepayers instead of to the billion-dollar energy corporation, National Grid. Between 2008 and 2016 she organized and led several petition and letter-writing campaigns and mobilizations of EFWA delegations to confront the PSC directly at multiple public hearings, training EFWA members how to turn their outrage about the rate hikes and shutoffs into action.”
Lee recalled one such campaign: “In 2014, Lynn led a group of die-hard members and volunteers on an all-day, nearly 300 mile round-trip to the PSC’s offices in Albany, NY. The plan was to enter the PSC’s offices and refuse to leave until they met with us and heard our demands and made them part of the official record of the rate case. Eventually, they did allow our group to enter and met with us for almost two hours. Lynn had calculated that there were so many shutoffs that summer that during their business hours, National Grid in fact had shut off a household every 100 seconds. So, throughout the meeting, a member kept a stopwatch and every 100 seconds when it beeped, we all shouted, ‘Another family has just been shut off!’ You should have seen those PSC lawyers squirm.”
Lee said, “In all, Lynn led fights that saved National Grid ratepayers throughout the region $821 million.”
Matt DeLeon, a fellow organizer with EFWA in Central New York recalled, “Lynn was the first person I ever met from the Association. She was the one who stopped me on the street and first told me about EFWA. The things that have always impressed me about Lynn were her enthusiasm and determination to reach any goal and meet any objective, no matter how difficult. She always gave everything she had, lived every day like it mattered, and got up and did it again the next day. I can say in all honesty that I learned how to fight for the people from Lynn.
“It is impossible to overstate the contributions she made to EFWA, especially in overseeing the move to Syracuse, establishing a permanent base in the community and building the long-lasting support base that has allowed us to cover the eight counties we do today.”
“I remember Lynn as being foremost a compassionate advocate and focused organizer for those in our society who are bypassed by the prosperity some in our country have enjoyed,” said Michael Geraghty, an architect whose firm donated its services to renovate the building at 525 N. Salina St. as EFWA's Office Central. He praised Lynn's drive to make the building a long-term home for the organizing drive: “Lynn was always able to orchestrate the necessary funding and contractors to make this work possible, thereby ensuring the structural stability and function of the building for many years into the future.”
Lynn was Operations Manager of CNY EFWA until 2016 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and moved to NYC where she would have access to moret advanced treatment options. Lynn continued to organize, assuming the role of Administrative Assistant with Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals (CCMP) in metropolitan New York. There she continued the fight for organization of the poor and allies in the community against a system that promotes the profits of powerful monopolies over the survival and well-being of working people until her untimely death.
Lynn is survived by her parents, Donald and Ann Harter, two sisters Donna Harter Gogol (husband John Gogol) and Catherine Harter Rohr (husband Matthew Rohr) and one brother, Robert Harter, beloved niece Nora Gogol and nephews Patrick Gogol and Ethan Gogol.
She will be sorely missed by her fellow organizers, by the thousands of farm worker members of EFWA and the many medical professional members, volunteers and benefit recipients of New York Metropolitan CCMP.
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